In Code: A Mathematical Journey
Sarah Flannery with David Flannery
Can Americans set aside The Lovely Bones long enough to read a County Cork teenager's chipper explanation of the Caesar cipher? In Code is unlikely to get optioned for the screen, and it isn't the suspenseful adventure its publisher promises, but the story of 16-year-old Sarah Flannery's quest to become first Ireland's and then Europe's Young Scientist of the Year is a solid, engaging read.
Co-authored with her father and math mentor David Flannery, the book celebrates numbers and the historical figures whose discoveries paved the way for Sarah Flannery's work in cryptography, the encoding and decoding of messages. Perhaps most of all, the book promotes one of the least glitzy ideas of our day: working very hard for a very long time.
Despite her awards, despite attention from Pepsi, the Spice Girls, and Irish President Mary McAleese, Flannery, now 19, is not the genius the media has spun her into. Throughout the book she deflates the prodigy story; she is much more interested in sharing her passion for math, much of it gained from her father, a lecturer at Ireland's Cork Institute of Technology.
Admitting that math can "intimidate" her, Flannery coaches readers through a series of puzzles, laying the groundwork for the eventual explanation of her award-winning project, a new algorithm for encryption that would be significantly faster than the so-called RSA algorithm used worldwide. She encourages readers to plod through the puzzles, and to resist the temptation to flip to the answers at the back of the book. Her urgings are touching and more than a little guilt-inducing. Readers who trudge through the concepts are rewarded with the joy of seeing that matrix multiplication really is noncommutative.
Flannery's prose is reserved and straightforward, highly appreciated in technical sections, in other places too eleventh-grade-English-assignment. Even the moment when she wins the big award is downplayed; it's told quickly and with only glimpses of emotion. Still, she's not an elbow-patched lecturer trying to impress you but an enthusiastic student who wants people to know how it feels to crack math's codes. It's a generous, refreshing tone, one that might be hard for jaded readers to accept. If they can, they may find themselves left with a deeper appreciation for a girl-woman who kept her head in the media's swirl.
Does Sarah Flannery's experience deserve a book? The story may not be riveting, but people tired of Prozacked wunderkinds suing their parents will enjoy this father-daughter's genuine, upbeat collaboration.