Celebrating 100 years of Alan Turing

By Keith Martin, Director of the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway, University of London

I’ve always been intrigued by the appeal of cryptography. In its most intuitive form, cryptography is the study of techniques for making a message unreadable to anyone other than the intended recipient. Why is that so intrinsically interesting to so many people?

The answer has at least something to do with our natural human curiosity. We have a fascination for puzzles and mysteries. We love secrets. Cryptography uses secrets to transform messages into puzzles which can then only be solved by anyone else sharing the original secret. To everyone else the puzzle remains a mystery. How wonderful is that?

Cryptography is, however, a deadly serious game. For centuries cryptography has been a tool deployed in times of conflict to protect military communications from being understood by “the enemy”. This is the context in which Alan Turing cut his name as a cryptographer during the Second World War. Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park and is most famous for his contributions to the demystification of the Enigma encryption machines that the Axis powers used to protect their communications. Turing’s contributions to cryptanalysis, the art of defeating cryptographic schemes, were insightful. In particular, he is credited as being one of the main contributors to the design of the bombe, an electromechanical machine used to search for vital Enigma settings.

The efforts of the men and women of Bletchley Park are widely regarded as having played an important role in drawing the war to a close. Bletchley Park is open to the public and a highly recommended day out. You can see a replica bombe and a striking sculpture of Alan Turing, carved from slate by artist Stephen Kettle.

Alan Turing. Sculpture by Stephen Kettle. Bletchley Park. Photo by Jon Callas. Creative Commons License.

There is much more, however, to both cryptography and Alan Turing’s cryptographic legacy.

I don’t think it’s too shallow to claim that Turing was a genius. To me the strongest evidence is the fact that his work has had significant impact across several different fields of science, cryptanalysis being just one. His work on the theory of computation, along with his Bletchley experience, inevitably drew Turing into the post-war development of early computing machines. Turing was a key player in the initial convergence of theory and practice which enabled the modern computer to emerge in the subsequent decades. Turing was there at the very start. Who knows where our computing journey will end?

What we do know is that modern life would be barely imaginable without the networks of computing devices on which we now rely. We talk, we write, we trade, we bank, we play — all on computers. Our world, which once relied on physical presence and boundaries for its security, is now an open digital one. Without the right precautions we can never be sure, for example, who is taking our money online, what amount they really are taking, and who might be listening in. It’s scary, if you think about it for too long.

The good news is that this digital world can be made secure through the use of, guess what? Cryptography! Significantly, the cryptography used today provides much more than the creation of puzzles from secrets that was first alluded to. The requirement to secure computers has necessitated the development of many different types of cryptography that go far beyond the basic encryption of secret messages that Turing so admirably wrestled with in the 1940s. Modern cryptography also provides services which help to detect unauthorised modification of data. Cryptographic mechanisms can be deployed to assure the source of a digital communication. Cryptography can even be used to create digital analogues of handwritten signatures.

Rather than being a technology only encountered by brilliant mathematicians in the most desperate of times, cryptography is now something that, without even realising, we use every day. We rely on cryptography when we chat on our mobile phones, when we withdraw cash, when we make purchases over the Internet, even when we open our car door. During the Second World War, the Allied Powers nearly didn’t prevail because of the use of cryptography. Now none of us can survive without it.

Even at mass entertainment level, there is cryptography. I smile at the popularisation of the unbreakable encryption technique known as the one-time pad. I see people every day wrinkling their brows during attempts to construct complete specifications of one-time pads from partial information in a newspaper. Perhaps you know these better as Sudoku Squares? You see, we really do love puzzles, mysteries, and secrets. The eternal appeal of cryptography is guaranteed.

I would argue that cryptography is important, useful, clever, and fun, which I think is a charmingly rare combination. I am sure that Alan Turing would agree.

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The Science of Sustainability

By Anna Kosteletos

Energy & Sustainability Manager for Royal Holloway, University of London

This week twenty bright young children from four local schools came to our Campus at Royal Holloway, to take part in the Science of Sustainability Challenge.  This event was run to enable them to learn about careers in science, with a particular focus on sustainability.

I thought this event was incredibly important as it promotes science in a way that the children attending can relate to in their everyday lives.  This was  particularly pertinent this week as the Rio  20+ earth summit is currently taking place and this really puts the real-world challenges of sustainability in the spotlight and enables the children to relate what is in the news to their surroundings and the experiences that they have had at the College.  This allows them to realise how important pursuing a career in science could be.

Even more importantly, a number of academic staff and some students from our Science Faculty at Royal Holloway gave up their time and showed their true dedication to promoting the sciences to the children by partaking in this event. Each of the students and staff spent their time running activities with the children; the activities were inclusive and allowed the children to undertake some exercises such as air monitoring and pond dipping, which they thoroughly enjoyed. One child commented: “I liked the pond dipping and finding out about new insects”

This event may have inspired these children to follow a career in the sciences, which to me seems very important, as they are the future generations that will be influential and central to the science of sustainability in years to come.

At the end of these two days the children were set a challenge to go away and come up with a campaign to promote sustainable behaviours at their school.  They were told that this could be focused on one of the topics that they had learnt about which included water conservation, air monitoring, fairtrade, biodiversity, energy conservation or waste and behavioural change in sustainability.  This will help them to deepen their knowledge and empower them to take actions to initiate change in their schools.

They will return in a few weeks to present their ideas and the winning team will win £150 to implement their idea.  In my mind this allows them to learn that they can take action for sustainability and that every little act makes a difference, as it is the efforts of the collective that will help us to meet the challenges that we face in relation to sustainability.

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What I learnt: A Year 12 student’s account of life in our Department of Physics

A blog post by Daniel Tootil, a year 12 pupil at Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen.

Daniel spent a week,  from Monday 11 to Friday 15 June, shadowing members of Royal Holloway’s Centre for Particle Physics group as they conducted their research, to find out whether he would enjoy pursuing his interest in physics research.

Daniel Tootil, a year 12 pupil at Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen

Daniel Tootil, a year 12 pupil at Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen

What a week! From meeting scientists involved on the LHC experiment, ATLAS – whether trying to locate the elusive Higgs Boson or working with the vital trigger software – to partaking in particle physics experiments myself in the lab, the week proved incredibly interesting not to mention enjoyable. While some of the talk proved beyond my understanding, the experience gained by attending meetings and video/telephone conferences, has given me a valuable insight into the work I might do if I were a research scientist.

Did you know that there is more to a proton than just 3 quarks? Or that liquid argon can be used to find evidence of dark matter? Chances are you did, especially if, like me, you were able to do work experience with the physics department at Royal Holloway, University of London.

As a Year 12 pupil I will hopefully soon make the transition to university and subsequently further on to pursue my career interests. I wanted to find out whether I would enjoy pursuing my interest in physics research.

Not only did I get to experience the work of a researcher, but I was also lucky enough to experience university life. Staying on campus, doing university level experiments and receiving mini lectures on a variety of particle physics topics: they will all be useful in preparing me for the future.

I am glad that the opportunity to come to Royal Holloway, University of London was proffered to me.

For more information on studying science at Royal Holloway, please visit www.rhul.ac.uk/discoverscience 

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Behind the scenes at SCALES


More than 80 years ago Virginia Woolf published an extended essay entitled ‘A Room of One’s Own’ in which she asked ‘where are all the women in history of English literature?’ She concluded that for the most part they were too busy scrubbing floors and caring for children, husbands and others to have the opportunity to contribute. The solution? A room of one’s own and a £500 annual allowance – in other words, time, space and enough money to be free of domestic responsibility.

You may think women have come a long way since 1929, but sometimes I wonder. The last episode of Stephen Fry’s otherwise wonderful series Planet Word was all about the written word and there was not a woman in sight. No women interviewed about the role of literature in our society and no women featured as outstanding contributions to the canon of English literature. Not…

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The Science Behind ‘Brain Reading’

By Laura Grima, Psychology student at Royal Holloway

For those of us who enjoy a good superhero comic, the notion of mind reading is not unfamiliar; take Professor Charles Xavier from the X-Men series, who, without much effort, can delve into the deepest, darkest thoughts and secrets of any individual whom he wishes to target. As appealing as this concept is, few would claim it is anything more than mere science fiction and fantasy. However, some recent research suggests that we may be a step closer to mind reading (or, rather, ‘brain reading’) than many of us may realise – and that neuropsychology might have the answer.

Professor Charles Xavier from X-men

Professor Charles Xavier from X-men

There has been a recent surge of investigations in this area, though the brain reading demonstrated by these studies is perhaps not quite as skilful or precise as Professor Xavier is capable of. There are two main branches of these techniques that are being developed, each of which approach the field from a different angle; on the one hand, there are a growing number of studies focusing on the prediction of intentions, and on the other, there are studies which claim that brain reading may be the basis of a new form of forensic ‘fingerprinting’.

The idea that by interpreting brain scans, one can reveal the intentions of a person before they’ve even made a movement, is perhaps slightly unnerving. And yet there is growing evidence that this can be done – and with an increasing accuracy. For example, in one recent study, subjects were able to freely decide which of two tasks they wanted to perform. They did not reveal their choice until after a delay, but it was within this delay that brain activity was measured using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging, a form of brain imaging which measures changes in blood flow in different areas of the brain). The researchers honed in on the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain which deals with planning and goal-related processing, and was able to decode the brain imaging to reveal which of the two options the participants had chosen up to a 70% accuracy rate. Plus, with the development of more sophisticated programming to do this decoding, it would appear that these accuracy rates are only going to improve. Similarly, it may be possible to apply this technology to complex decision-making. Very impressive stuff!

However, one might question the applied value of being able to predict a person’s decision in such a way. A suggestion by one prominent researcher in the field, John-Dylan Haynes, is that such technology could be used to aid people suffering from paralysis to perform complex actions by using computer-assisted prosthetic devices. The technology used is able to detect the behavioural intentions of the patient – intentions that the patient is not able to carry out – and is then able to convert these intentions into actions as performed by the prostheses. Such technology has already been  implemented with some success.

So what of the other branch of brain reading, that is brain ‘fingerprinting’ ? We all know about the physiological techniques used in forensics, such as polygraph tests, as popularised by Jeremy Kyle. These measure indices such as blood pressure, respiration, and pulse when participants answer either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a series of questions concerning the incident at hand. However, this is an indirect measure and its reliability has been questioned. Can brain ‘fingerprinting’ be the answer?

Polygraph test

Polygraph test

The method behind this idea involves the revealing of so-called guilty knowledge; the suspect is presented with a stream of information, the majority of which is neutral and has no particular relevance. Incriminating details are embedded into this irrelevant stream – details that only the true culprit would be aware of – and their electrical brain activity, as measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG), is interpreted. What the interpreters are looking for is a particular type of electrical activity that occurs 300 milliseconds after the stimulus is presented, known as a P300. If a P300 is detected, the suspect is thought to recognise the stimulus, showing memory of it – and ‘proving’ their guilt.

This technique has some obvious advantages in comparison to the traditional physiological techniques as previously used, such as the polygraph test; brain fingerprinting is not dependent or affected by emotional responses, and one has to question the effectiveness of a polygraph test on a psychopath who does not experience a normal emotional range, for example. In this way, brain fingerprinting bypasses these measures and, it is argued, is subsequently a more direct measure of guilt. However, it should be noted that a brain fingerprint does not measure whether someone is lying, but rather whether they have already encountered certain information before, and because of this the technique has come under some criticism. Despite this, brain fingerprinting has been used in court both to prosecute, such as in the case of Aditi Sharma, a 24-year-old who was found guilty of murder based on the results of an electroencephalogram, and also to reverse convictions, such as in the case of Terry Harrington in 2000.

So it would appear that brain reading is something not only being developed by researchers in the scientific world, but is also something being applied to the real world, potentially affecting the lives of many. With such implications comes not only responsibility, but philosophical questions, namely concerning ethics: is it right to be able to do these things, to, in a sense, ‘look’ into someone’s mind and try to predict what they’re about to do, or to find out what knowledge they have and what they lack?

This is where neuroethics comes in, the ethics of neuroscience. As much as many neuroscientists may view their field as pure, hard science, brain reading is one of many examples which pulls these experimenters back into considering the human side of things – appropriate, since ultimately they are dealing with humans, as opposed to biological machines. Brain reading presents the questions not only of whether it’s okay to delve into a person’s mind, but whether we’re actually bound by our morals to do so; after all, if we can predict a person’s intent, perhaps we can predict whether a person will commit a crime in the future? Is it okay to prosecute someone for something they haven’t yet done? What impact does this have on the concept of free will?

Admittedly, the technology is far off from enabling neuroscientists to read and interpret random thoughts, to literally ‘read a mind’. However, the aforementioned findings are encouraging, and hence neuroethics is a rapidly developing field trying to keep up with these technological advancements, asking the big questions whilst the neuroscientists delve into the details. There’s no doubt that there may be positive contributions from this research, such as allowing paralysed individuals to manipulate prostheses, but despite this, many outside the area are wary of some of the less savoury possibilities.

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High North Study Visit

By Professor Klaus Dodds, Department of Geography

Led by the Norwegian Ambassador to the UK, Kim Traavik, a small party of mainly UK MPs and senior civil servants were invited to participate in a study visit encompassing various locations in northern Norway and Svalbard. As the only academic in the party, it was a tremendous privilege to be invited to attend on the basis, I presume, of my published work on the changing geopolitics of the Arctic region.

Prof Dodds in Svalbard

Prof Dodds in Svalbard

Norway, as an Arctic coastal state, is one of the major players in the region and is a critical energy trading partner of the UK. The two countries have also enjoyed a long standing military relationship with one another and UK armed forces personnel recently trained with their Norwegian counterparts in March 2012 under the auspices of Exercise Cold Response. The study visit offered an unrivaled opportunity to access senior ministers, civil servants, military officers and other professionals responsible for promoting and implementing Norway’s High North strategy. After briefings in Oslo by senior representatives from the Ministries of Defence, Foreign Affairs and Petroleum and Energy, we flew north to Bodo and Tromso for further conversations with Norwegian military personnel, scientific officers and oil and gas experts.

The highlight of this portion of the study visit was a tour of the Norwegian Joint Headquarters, which is located inside a mountain close to Bodo. Standing in front of multiple screens real-time tracking Norwegian assets in the Arctic and Afghanistan, it was difficult not to be reminded of a James Bond movie. Impressive as it was, this visit enabled us to better understand Norway’s current and future military plans in the Arctic region, in the light of improved relations with Russia in particular. In Tromso, the site of the Norwegian Polar Institute it was notable how the Norwegian government has invested considerably in their scientific presence. Some 160 staff work there focussing on both the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

The last leg was the most spectacular as we boarded a plane from Tromso and headed further north to the archipelago of Svalbard. Home to 2500 people, this Norwegian territory is regulated by the Svalbard Treaty which allows for other signatories including Russia and the UK to establish their own presence on the islands. Although bad weather prevented us from flying to Ny-Alesund and witnessing an array of scientific stations, one highlight was a visit to the impressive satellite station (Svalsat) perched up on a hill behind the main settlement of Longyearbyen. The facility functions as a ground control station for polar orbiting satellites and works closely with international partners such as NASA. The golf ball like structures (radomes) accommodate and protect the radar systems and as we stood inside one such example I fought the urge not to be distracted by images of geopolitical intrigue as depicted in the opening scenes from the James Bond film You Only Live Twice.

Satellite stations in Svalbard

Satellite stations in Svalbard

What did I learn overall from this study visit? Norwegian officials place considerable importance on maintaining a close relationship with the UK especially in the fields of energy and defence. The UK is a key importer of Norwegian gas and this is likely to continue to be the case. Norway has a keen sense of its interests in the Arctic and placed considerable importance in both exercising national sovereignty over its Arctic territories and maritime spaces while actively supporting international bodies such as the Arctic Council. Norway’s relationship with Russia is complex and multi-faceted and although relations have improved in some areas (e.g. maritime boundary delimitation in the Barents Sea), there are outstanding commercial and military-based concerns which will shape future Norwegian-Russian relations. Cold War era anxieties have not entirely dissipated.

Finally, I appreciated only too clearly the importance of public and private diplomacy as the Ambassador and his staff effortlessly (or so it appeared) shuttled us around multiple locations in a carefully constructed programme designed to impress upon us Norway’s Arctic credentials.

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Guest Post – Rare Disease Day 2012

Diana Ribero at Rare Disease Day

Diana Ribero at Rare Disease Day

By Diana Ribeiro, Regional Development Officer, Action Duchenne

Across the UK, there were events to raise awareness and the urgency of providing vital funds for rare diseases. As an alumnus of Royal Holloway, I was delighted to take part in the day’s activities on campus on Wednesday the 29th of February.

I arrived early in the morning to set-up Action Duchenne’s exhibitor stand in the illustrious Founders building. Our banner was ideally placed not only amongst some very worthy causes, but also attracting lots of interest from college, university students, professionals and local parents alike. Later in the afternoon, I gave a talk about living with Duchenne from the viewpoint of our supporters, the focal point being the trailer for John Hastie’s A Life Worth Living Film, which really struck a chord with the audience.

The Bioenterprise section, although separate from the rare disease event itself was really interactive, aimed at the final year students within the School of Biological Sciences who volunteered during the day. There were many inquisitive minds present, quizzing me about the recent advances in genetic medical research and how best to get involved in charity work.

My personal highlight was Helene Raynsford, a fellow former alumni and Paralympics Champion with a rare disease (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome). Her story was truly inspirational; pursuing your dreams and achieving your potential, no matter what the circumstances.

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