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Start Codes That Break the Myth of Being a Maths or a Language Person
24 July 2020

Codes That Break the Myth of Being a Maths or a Language Person

Estimated reading time Time 3 to read

Which people are most qualified to program and work with codes? Math people or language people? From the very moment that the first computers burst on the scene, it was assumed that the ideal profile was that of an individual with a mathematical mind. However, a recently published study forces us to question this stereotype. Here we put it to the test, in practice, with these two cryptograms.

Brainteaser 1: Alphanumeric Mathematical Puzzle

An alphanumeric puzzle is a mathematical operation between words so that to solve it you have to identify which digit is hidden under each letter. Each letter represents a single number, and always the same; what’s more, the first letter of each word can never represent 0. Knowing this, try and solve the following sum of mathematicians:





Solution 1


For centuries, the best coders and cryptanalysts were considered to be linguists and scholars of related disciplines. However, the invention of the Enigma cipher machine in the first half of the 20th century, its use by German troops during the Second World War to encrypt their communications and the urgent need to decipher these messages as the war progressed, forced a change in this perception.

BBVA-OpenMind-MAteria-Codigos CyL 1-Máquina Enigma, siendo usada en diciembre de 1943, con su doble teclado (que muestra el mensaje codificado según se va tecleando el mensaje original). Fuente: Deutsches Bundesarchiv
Enigma machine in use, in December 1943. Its double keyboard shows the coded message as the original message is being typed. Source: Deutsches Bundesarchiv

The Enigma was an electromechanical cipher machine whose foundation was eminently mathematical. With a core made up of a set of disks that rotated at different speeds and an internal wiring that interchanged a series of positions, its strength and invulnerability resided in the uncountable number of possible combinations that the core allowed.

It was the team of Polish mathematicians led by Marian Rejewski, first —and later the British cryptanalysts commanded by Alan Turing— who managed to crack the fearsome Nazi cipher machine. Not only that, but they achieved it thanks to the invention of deciphering machines also built on mathematical principles, the so-called Turing bombes, which were followed by the imposing Colossus, considered the first electromechanical computer.

Thus, the emergence of computers and their constant evolution marked the beginning of a new era in coding and decoding, the transition between classic cryptography and its modern version. Given that computers operate with binary numbers and that, in fact, the first computer programs were developed by mathematicians, it was assumed from the beginning that the best programmers were those with a mathematical mind (and training), rather than linguists and other experts in the structure of language.

BBVA-OpenMind-Materia-Codigos CyL 2-Imagen de la película 'The Imitation Game', en la que Alan Turing contempla la máquina (Bombe) que usó para descifrar el código enigma de los nazis. Crédito: The Weinstein Company
Image from ‘The Imitation Game’ movie, with Alan Turing staring at the machine (Bombe) he used to to decypher the Nazi’s Enigma code. Credit: The Weinstein Company

However, it may be time to revisit this idea. At least that‘s what’s suggested by a recent study by researchers at the University of Washington that has concluded that when it comes to programming and writing code, it is better to have language skills than mathematical talent. Or, put another way, people who are good with words and languages have an easier time programming (and learning to do so) than those who excel at numbers.

The explanation outlined by the authors of the research is that writing code involves learning and handling another language, so the ability to learn new vocabulary and grammar and combine them to express ideas and intentions as clearly as possible is paramount. But is it the same when it comes to deciphering unknown codes and decoding encrypted messages? In principle it should be so, since it is a matter of knowing how to interpret a set of symbols and the rules they follow to express an idea.

In fact, Alan Turing himself already anticipated this. When, after the invention of his bombes, the British Government Code and Cypher School launched a recruitment campaign to bring in new members, it did so by issuing an anonymous challenge to Daily Telegraph readers to solve a crossword puzzle. And the 25 readers who answered were invited to the Department’s premises to pass a new test which, again, consisted of a crossword puzzle. The reason for this was that it was understood that people who excelled at playing with words could also be good puzzle solvers and complement the mathematicians, physicists and engineers on Turing’s team.

Brainteaser 2

Below is a coded message that the reader has to solve, bearing in mind that the code has been typed not by a “digit person” but by “letter person,” who makes a living typing them:

(1,2) (3,2), (1,2) (9,2), (9,1), (4,3), (3,1), (9,2), (1,2), (3,3), (3,1)

Solution 2


Miguel Barral



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