CWU mathematics professor featured on Scientific American podcast

  • November 27, 2023
  • Rune Torgersen

Stuart Boersma first heard about Elizebeth Smith Friedman at a conference a few years ago, which surprised him, because he’d been interested in cryptology for most of his career.

Boersma, a professor of mathematics at Central Washington University, was taken aback that he’d never learned about the first American to break the codes produced by the German Enigma machine during World War II. That led him to start researching Friedman’s work.

“There have been a couple of biographies about her since then, but nothing that was written by someone who understood the intricacies of the ciphers and cryptology she was working with,” Boersma said. “I wanted to know more about that, so I spent a year getting my hands on as many examples of her work as I could, and tried to tell her story from a mathematician’s perspective.”

After he published his research last summer, he was asked to contribute to Scientific American’s podcast, “The Lost Women of Science.” The publication was interested in his expertise on Friedman’s life, as well as the cultural factors that may have prevented her story from becoming more widely known in the aftermath of the war.

“We’re still learning so much about how women contributed to the war effort during World War II,” Boersma said. “That’s partially due to the agreements they had everyone sign, preventing them from talking about their government work, but also partially because of a historic disparity in how the accomplishments of women are celebrated. I think that’s an injustice we’re still working to correct.”

Friedman started her career as a codebreaker for the U.S. Coast Guard during Prohibition, cracking smuggler codes to help the authorities stem the constant import of illegal liquor. Once WWII started, however, the U.S. government employed her to help decipher coded communications between Nazi sympathizers in South America and the U.S.

Germany famously employed the Enigma machine to scramble its communications, rendering them impervious to traditional methods of codebreaking. Friedman was able to use her advanced knowledge in the field to not only decipher the messages but also figure out how the Enigma machine was built, using nothing more than the code intercepted by the government.

Her story is told in the episode "The American Lit Major Who Cracked Nazi Codes," which features Boersma’s voice and research. He said he was excited about the opportunity to share his knowledge with Scientific American’s audience.

“I was just thrilled to be invited on the podcast, and even more so that they ended up using a portion of my audio,” Boersma said. “Anything I can do to help get Elizebeth Smith Friedman’s name out there and get more people curious about her story is well worth doing.”

 

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