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

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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2000



A quirky wonder of a book.

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. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020


Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

Close Quickview