Thursday 1 February 2018

In Code

I was recently leaping to the defense of a winner of the BT Young Scientists competition. It was in reaction to a lot of mostly uninformed carping on suggesting that his Mammy did all the work. One of the moaners mentioned that the winner in 1999, Sarah Flannery, had a father, David Flannery, who taught maths at the local Institute of Technology . . . and so of course she won the prize for her contribution to cryptography and internet security. Oh really? Did you read the book? I did, at the time, and I wrote a review of it for the Home Education Network newsletter. And I think it could, with advantage be brought out into the light again here:

Book Review: “In Code by Sarah Flannery with David Flannery”
This is the true story of 16 year old Sarah Flannery who won the 1999 RDS Young Scientist’s Competition for her new and original take on internet encryption.  It is an inspiration to all of us who seek to nurture the natural talents of the young.

It is not altogether surprising that Sarah made her contribution to scientific progress in mathematics.  She comes from a math-able family and her father is a professional mathematician teaching in Cork Institute of Technology.  Some of her ability may have been in the genes, but her interest in maths was doubtless fostered by a father who was passionate about his work.  He is also obviously passionate about education.  In one of the stranger episodes in the story, the Flannerys meet a millionaire who “…mentioned that all his children had been educated at home before going to university.  That was something I knew would impress Dad a lot – let’s just say Dad has very unorthodox views on education.”  One of the Flannerys’ unorthodoxies is that there is a blackboard in the kitchen – which is the sort of furniture you’d expect to find in the clich√© home educating family.  And it seems that the blackboard is used by them all to explain things and to solve problems and puzzles.  A key formative event in Sarah’s education was enrolling in her father’s CIT evening class in recreational mathematics.  This course is filled with the interesting aspects of maths; the anecdotes; the history; the triumphs and unexpected connections.  In other words, all the bits that are left out of the Leaving Cert curriculum because it is too full of the boring and the examinable.

While this may seem ominously like the hot-housing of a gifted child, it doesn’t read like that.  Sarah has gotten serious about maths because her home was steeped in it.  It’s really no more surprising than the fact that so many catholics are raised in catholic homes.  What is engaging and compelling about the story is the strong feeling that her pursuit of excellence came from something near the core of her being.  She came across a problem in cryptography, and was engaged by it.  She read in ever widening circles around the subject in order to understand it more fully.  She had certain key creative insights that add enormously to the coherence and value of this branch of her chosen science.  She wrote it all up and cared enough about it to go the extra step of making the abstruse intelligible to other people.  The part of her “fifteen minutes of fame” that she most relished was when she was treated with the respect of an equal by professional mathematicians, some of whom, as competition judges, were obliged to give her and her work a good grilling.

And while maths is very important to her, don’t imagine that she is a one dimensional person.  She has other passions including that peculiar affinity many teenage girls have for shovelling horse dung.  Just a normal girl, who taught herself to program computers and read articles as thick with Greek as a brack is with currants.

It is obvious that some folks who go to school get a great “home education”: by which I mean that they are given, or make, the space to grow to their full potential.  Who knows what Sarah Flannery’s full potential is, but she certainly achieved something remarkable before she voted in an election.
If that intrigues you enough to want to read the book it won't cost you much.

Appendix: Secrets, codes, beginning cryptography
Simple codes include Caesar’s Code which shifts each letter along the alphabet by a fixed number.  Here is an encoding key using a shift of three letters:
Clear: A B C D E F G H I J K L M
Coded: D E F G H I J K L M N O P
Clear: N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Coded: Q R S T U V W X Y Z A B C
And here is an encoded message:
Or you can use a numerical code:
15’130108151425  0919  01  191625
Or you could combine the two:
1312161602  110422  04  051210  17182208

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