A story about…science?

IMG_8920This week, I finished reading The Woman Who Smashed Codes, by Jason Fagone. It chronicles the life and contributions—mostly behind the scenes—of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, arguably one of the most important cryptography specialists working in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. She and her husband William created useful methods and trained others in how to break secret codes.

Fagone begins his book by declaring, “This is a love story.” And thus his biography of this woman’s remarkable (yet completely ordinarily human) life unfolds. Curiously, the traditional manifestations of dopey romantic love are revealed to be essentially one-sided (and it’s not Elizebeth). But love takes many forms, and the Friedmans did love a good puzzle. Their devotion to their craft (and perhaps to the exclusion of many other pursuits) arguably changed the pace and scope of the business of military intelligence—and potentially the outcome of a number of international conflicts—forever.

This book was a fascinating look at a problem I’d never thought to consider: how messages have been sent in code in most cat-and-mouse games throughout history. From rum-runners during Prohibition to the height of espionage during World War II, we are taken on a journey through technology and time and learn how the insights of both Elizebeth and William Friedman were interwoven into this history.  I enjoy learning about history, and the more interdisciplinary the topic, the more I enjoy it. As a young student, I was turned off to history as told through a narrative of wars and battles and conquests. But in college, I learned more about the issues, resources, and cultural identities that fueled these manifestations of conflict around the world and was drawn to the idea of learning from our past to shape a better future. (I majored in biology in college and probably would have selected a history minor, if we had minors in our curriculum.) This behind-the-scenes view, using in part formerly classified documents, gives fresh insight into the problems the world continues to face as different cultures and ideologies vie for space on a planet with finite resources.

As I enjoyed the book, I kept grappling with the narrative theme, perhaps even as Fagone did in identifying that this book was a “love story.” What would I tell a friend (or my blog visitors) this book was really about? Author Jason Fagone is a writer with various interests, spanning technology, science, sports, and culture. His general approach appears to be storytelling of real-life people and events—or narrative nonfiction. Narrative nonfiction is increasing in popularity in telling stories of science, in particular, as writers seek to grab a reader’s interest with a good storyline to highlight a particular person, event, or concept. I actually selected Fagone’s book because of its purpoted “women-in-science” theme. So is it a book about a woman in science? Elizebeth and William Friedman broke codes by using logic, reasoning, and an appreciation for patterns that simplify otherwise insurmountable permutations of data to solve puzzles. The simple “cryptoquips” of the newspaper puzzle page are an example. The Friedmans created guidelines for solving increasingly challenging ciphering mechanisms—and eventually were helped by computers running algorithms and testing permutations. The technology that created machines to easily create and decode secret messages was impressive. And the Friedmans used scientific reasoning skills (observation, question, hypothesis, prediction, experiment, result, interpretation) to their work. Fagone argues that the Friedmans turned the art of cryptography into a science. So, yes, it’s arguably a story of a woman in science.


Enigma coding machine, circa 1930. Deciphering messages made by these machines feature prominently in the story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman’s brilliance.  [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But it’s more than just a biography of a “woman in science” that you should know about. The story of Elizebeth Friedman is the story of a woman working behind the scenes in the business of government that required everyone to work behind the scenes (her husband was even more bound to secrecy than she was). It’s the story of high-profile men in the limelight using the work of a woman, but she actually has been acknowledged for her work in this profession that is itself rather cryptic. It’s the story of a mother who worked full-time (and then some) in a time when that wasn’t common. It’s the story of William Friedman, which is impressive in and of itself. And of wacky George Fabyan, an eccentric millionaire who owned a giant property in Illinois that served as a strange incubator of big ideas–good and bad–and whose history is inextricably linked with the Friedmans. It’s the story of the history of government agencies in the United States, and of international conflict itself. It touches gingerly on what it was like to be Jewish in America during the 20th century. How do you wrap all that together and say it’s essentially a story of a woman in science? Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.


Elizebeth Smith Friedman. Public domain. Source: NSA website {{PD-USGov}}

After I finished the book, I considered how historical fiction featuring interesting women was my genre of choice in my teen years. I enjoyed imagining how the everyday women I saw around me today might have functioned in a different time and place in history. How might the voices and actions of women break through cultural norms that relegated women to only particular niches of influence? How did women contribute behind the scenes to the history we were shown through those noisy battles and speeches and policies (that were mostly made by men). I also read mysteries and watched them on TV. I reconnected with that inner girl as I read this true story of a woman breaking boundaries while she broke codes. Did the narrative nonfiction of women not exist a generation ago? Or did I not have the maturity or awareness to seek it out? My reading tastes have traditionally trended toward fiction as escapism from my daily responsibilities–like watching a movie–so I suspect that even if more books of fascinating real-life women had existed, I’d still have been perusing the fiction shelves of my local library and burying my nose in a novel. Fiction and non-fiction have different roles in the adventure of reading. But, I’ve enjoyed finding more stories recently about real-life—and very human—women who have advanced our understanding of science, history, contemporary culture, and more. I’ve read a few others over the past year and written earlier blog posts on some of them: Hidden Figures, Jill TartarLab Girl, and The Radium Girls. There’s been a growing movement to encourage scientists themselves to describe their findings using the structure of stories (see, for example, Randy Olson’s Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story). But the stories of people themselves, in particular, have always been fascinating. (There’s a reason biographies and memoirs are so popular!) I look forward to more adventures in science, history, and unsung contributions in the years to come. Let me know if you have recommendations to share!

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