Math major scores high in puzzle contest

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University of Washington Bothell mathematics major John Michael Bush finished near the top in the annual Kryptos Cryptanalysis Challenge that attracted 143 students from across the country to the contest at Central Washington University.

The challenge, April 5-9, presented students with three codebreaking problems to solve over several days. Only one-third of the 61 teams managed to solve any puzzles, and only four teams solved all three. Bush solved two of three, finishing second among all students who competed as individuals and sixth overall, the UW Bothell Division of Engineering and Mathematics reported.

Five other UW Bothell students competed in two teams:  Jessie Wang, Sam Hepner and Krystle Levin; and Vivek Gandhi and Kalen Mills.

The contest centers on the breaking, or cryptanalysis, of secret writing, or ciphers. Each challenge presents contestants with a brief scenario together with an encoded message. This year, participants decrypted a puzzling personal ad, unscrambled an intriguing invitation and broke up a fictional internet trolling ring. The puzzles did not use advanced algorithms, but they required participants to recognize a quote from Francis Bacon, pick up a reference to Stephen Hawking and to see a pattern in a coffee stain.

The challenge was developed by Stuart Boersma, CWU professor and chair of mathematics, and Cheryl Beaver, a Western Oregon University mathematics professor. The contest, hosted every April by the CWU Department of Mathematics, is sponsored by the Pacific Northwest section of the Mathematical Association of America.