Although the welter of personalities and technologies often overwhelms the narrative arc, Levy does a good job of making...

CRYPTO

WHEN THE CODE REBELS BEAT THE GOVERNMENT--SAVING PRIVACY IN THE DIGITAL AGE

A dramatically rendered if dense account of the post-hippie outsider intellectuals who cracked the National Security Agency’s monopoly on cryptography and ushered in much that dot-com America today takes for granted.

Newsweek technology writer Levy hews to chronology in this sprawling account of the nascent digital age, beginning with the “amateur” pursuits of disenchanted academics Whit Diffie and Martin Hellman, who wished to pursue developments in commercial cryptography. They found that the NSA (or “No Such Agency”) had dedicated itself to controlling all postwar cryptography information for national security purposes, coercing independent researchers and companies like IBM into restrictive secret covenants. Levy adeptly captures the disillusioned, home-brew spirit of 1970s computer science, in which various individuals working “under the radar” of the NSA were able to find each other and make huge advances, threatening both the governmental cryptographic monopoly and the notion of secure communication as prohibited for the masses. Briefly, Diffie and Hellman’s 1976 paper “New Directions in Cryptography” forecast a “public key” system (a combination of publicly available and confidential algorithm-based keys) to enable computerized communication and financial transactions. Its publication inspired a trio of MIT researchers to pursue the actual encryption keys, which became known as the Rivest-Shamir-Adelman (RSA) Algorithm and, following an article in Scientific American, precipitated an explosion of interest among mathematicians and programmers—and “sheer horror” at NSA. The story becomes increasingly complicated into the 1980s, as the first commercial programs appeared—the RSA-backed MailSafe and the derivative yet hip Pretty Good Privacy (which was illicitly distributed online)—as the key players sparred with NSA over RSA’s criminal, espionage, and export implications, and as competitiveness and litigation replaced the earlier nerd-bohemian atmosphere epitomized by the yearly Crypto conventions.

Although the welter of personalities and technologies often overwhelms the narrative arc, Levy does a good job of making this important tale readable and comprehensible.

Pub Date: Jan. 8, 2001

ISBN: 0-670-85950-8

Page Count: 300

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2000

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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