Code Making/Code Breaking

Linguistics A01
Fall 1999, TuTh 10.30-12
Northwestern University

Instructor: Prof. Chris Kennedy
Office: Linguistics Department (2016 Sheridan Rd.), Rm. 19
Phone: 491-8054
Office Hours: Tu 3-4; Th 4-5 (or by appointment)

Course Description

This seminar investigates the nature and use of codes and ciphers throughout the ages: what they are, and how they have affected (and possibly even determined!) the course of history and human development. We will start out by looking at writing, the most basic tool for encoding human thought, with a focus on the decipherment of the Mayan writing system. We will then turn to an exploration of how the methods of cryptography have been used to conceal and reveal information in areas ranging from literature and religious texts to wartime communications, ultimately arriving at an investigation of questions arising from work in computation theory on the nature of consciousness and human experience. We will conclude with two issues of interest to the present and future: the decryption of the human genome, and the decipherment of extraterrestrial messages (should they ever be received).


Classroom participation (20%), three individual papers (60%), group project in cryptography (20%). The evaluation of written work will focus on both ideas and the clarity and coherence with which ideas are communicated, assigning equal weight to content and structure/organization.

The written work is organized as follows:


Underlined readings are in the course reader; all optional readings are on two-hour reserve in the reserve room in the main library (2nd floor, east tower).

9.21 Types of codes and ciphers (Start reading in advance!)
9.23 Introduction to Northwestern's library
Class to be held in the Video Theater in the Mitchell Multimedia Center

The Original Encryption Technology
9.28 Types of writing systems (Coe 1-5)
9.30 The decipherment of Mayan (Coe 6-11)
10.5 (Un)locking the secrets of history (Chadwick, Fairservis)
10.7 (Un)locking the secrets of the universe (Suarès, Cohen, Matt)

The Art/Science of Cryptography
10.12 A brief history of cryptography (Kahn 2, Smith 1-2) paper 1 due
10.14 A few words on secret writing (Poe, Smith 3-6) guidelines for group projects distributed
10.19 Literary ciphers (Gold Bug, Dancing Men, Rosenheim 1)
10.21 Literary ciphers cont'd (Rosenheim 2-3)

World War II
10.26 Enigma (Hinsley & Stripp, Rosenheim 6)
10.28 Navajo Code Talkers (Navajo Code Talkers video)
Class to be held in the Video Theater

Code, Consciousness, and Computation
11.2 Life is codemaking (Tzonis) submission of group cryptograms
11.4 Representations and reality (Tzonis)
11.9 Life is codefollowing (Stephenson)
11.11 The linguistic code (Stephenson, Rosenheim 4)
11.16 The Turing Test (Turing, Searle) draft 1 of paper 2 due Looking ahead
11.18 The Human Genome Project (Judson, Stich, Butchvarov, Belkin, Stableford (optional))
11.22 Video Theater, 7.00 pm Contact
11.23 Messages from outer space (Kahn 26)

11.30 submission of group papers and group presentations
12.6 final draft of paper 2 due in my office by noon


Required Texts (available at Great Expectations Bookstore, 911 Foster St., Evanston)
Coe, Michael D. 1992. Breaking the Maya Code. New York: Thames and Hudson.
Rosenheim, Shawn J. 1997. The Cryptographic Imagination. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.
Smith, L. 1943. Cryptography: The Science of Secret Writing. New York: Dover Publications.
Stephenson, Neil. 1993. Snow Crash. New York: Bantam Spectra.
Tzonis, A. 1992. Hermes and the Golden Thinking Machine. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Course Reader (available from Quartet Copies, 818 Clark St., Evanston)
Chadwick, J. 1990. Linear B and Related Scripts. In Reading the Past. London: British Museum Publications.
Fairservis, W. 1983. The Script of the Indus Valley Civilization. Scientific American, March 1983.
Suarès, C. 1985. The Qabala Trilogy. London: Shambhala.
Cohen, H. God Only Knows. Lingua Franca. July/August 1998.
Matt, D. 1996. The Essential Kabbalah. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Kahn, D. 1967. The First 3,000 Years. Chapter 2 of The Codebreakers. New York: MacMillan.
Poe, E. A. A Few Words on Secret Writing. Graham's Magazine. April, 1841.
Poe, E. A. The Gold Bug. In Poe, E. A. 1967. The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories. London: Penguin.
Conan Doyle, Sir A. The Dancing Men. In Hodgson, J. (ed.). 1994. Sherlock Holmes: The Major Stories with Contemporary Critical Essays. Boston: St. Martin's Press.
Hinsley, F. H. and A. Stripp. 1993. Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Turing, A. 1950. Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Mind LIX, no. 2236. 433-460.
Searle, J. 1980. Minds, Brains, and Programs. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3:417-424.
Judson, H. 1992. A History of the Science and Technology behind Gene Mapping and Sequencing. In Kevles, D. and L. Hood (eds.), The Code of Codes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Stich, S. 1994. The Genetic Adventure. In Erwin, E., S. Gendin and L. Kleiman (eds.), Ethical Issues in Scientific Research. New York: Garland.
Butchvarov, P. 1994. Some Concerns about Self-Knowledge and the Human Genome Project. In Weir, R. S. Lawrence and E. Fales (eds.), Genes and Human Self-Knowledge. Iowa City: U. of Iowa Press.
Belkin, L. Splice Einstein and Sammy Glick. Add a Little Magellan. The New York Times Magazine. August 23, 1998.
Stableford, B. 1984. Future Man. New York: Crown Publishers.
Kahn, D. Messages From Outer Space. Chapter 26 of The Codebreakers. New York: MacMillan.

Readings on Reserve (Main Library, 2nd floor east tower)
Chadwick, John. 1958. The Decipherment of Linear B. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Coe, Michael D. 1997. The Art of the Maya Scribe. London: Thames and Hudson.
Kelly, David H. 1976. Deciphering the Maya Script. Austin: The University of Texas Press.
Hodges, Andrew. 1983. Turing, A Natural Philosopher. London: Phonenix.
Nakanishi, A. 1980. The Writing Systems of the World. New York: Tuttle.
Poe, E. A. "The Purloined Letter" and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue". In Poe, E. A. 1967. The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories. London: Penguin.
Rosen, K. 1988. Elementary Number Theory and Its Applications
Tesler, Lawrence. 1994. Programming Languages. Scientific American. September, 1994.

On the Web (a selection of relevant and informative websites)
Ancient Scripts
Mayan Epigraphic Database
The National Security Agency
International Cryptography
Alan Turing
Navajo Code Talkers (U.S. Navy site)