BWC (Brighton Women’s Centre)

Brighton Women’s Centre logo

With women leading countries around the world, you may think that the work on women’s rights is done. Yet equality isn’t a reality for everyone: here in the UK, for every £1 a man earns a woman receives only 85p.

For over 40 years, BWC (Brighton Women’s Centre) has been helping women from all backgrounds, facing all kinds of issues, to live happier lives. Women dealing with bereavement or trauma, women who have been through homelessness or the criminal justice system, survivors of abuse or discrimination — they’ve welcomed them all.

Our brand strategy work and resulting brand identity brings personality to their communications, suggests support, and highlights the social injustices women face. They’ve been continuing to make their mark ever since.

Brighton Women’s Centre identity
Brighton Women’s Centre identity
Brighton Women’s Centre identity

The serif typeface is Libre Baskerville (an open source version of Baskerville to keep the cost down for BWC), and the logo typeface is Din Condensed.

While we didn’t rename the charity, we did encourage them to embrace the BWC acronym. They were previously known as Brighton Women’s Centre, but now the intention is for them to be solely referred to as BWC.

BWC identity
BWC identity
BWC identity

BWC identity
BWC identity
BWC identity
BWC identity
BWC identity
BWC identity
BWC identity
BWC identity
BWC identity
BWC identity
BWC identity

Baxter and Bailey elsewhere on Identity Designed.

Designed in collaboration with Kate Van der Borgh.

More from Baxter and Bailey.

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In Their Own Words – Eunjeong Yoo

Korean illustrator and art director Eunjeong Yoo describes how the fashion industry has inspired her work.

I was born and raised in Seoul, then moved to New York when I was 19 years old to study illustration at the School of Visual Arts. After graduating I moved back to Seoul and have worked here ever since. Instead of becoming a freelance illustrator I started working for a fashion advertising agency as a graphic designer. It helped me a lot in terms of finding my own passion and artistic style. I loved seeing fashion photography and really enjoyed the process of creating fashion visuals. And then I thought ‘how about making this kind of fashion imagery with my illustration?’ instead of borrowing the hands of photographers. That’s how I decided to be a fashion illustrator.

I’m still not sure whether I should call myself just an illustrator or a fashion illustrator, since my illustration style is different from other fashion illustrations, but mostly I draw girls in fashion. And I make colourful patterns and draw typography by hand.

When I left my company to become a freelance illustrator, for around a year, I had no incomes from illustration, but I just kept creating new illustrations and built my portfolio. Then when I hit my rock bottom, one of the top department stores from Korea reached out to me to create their fashion campaign, which was a huge scale project. That was my big break, and ever since then I’ve been working with clients to create fashion campaigns and visuals.

Whenever I work on my illustration, I think about what story and what kind of mood I want to convey and I put these ideas into my illustrations and characters. But the thing I consider most is how to create an image that balances the subject and the rest of the elements as well as the colours. Colour is an incredibly important element in my work and for me, finding my own colour balance is like solving a jigsaw puzzle – the process is painful but I enjoy every moment of it.

You can see my works on my website and instagram.

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On a Magical Do-Nothing Day: A Lovely Illustrated Ode to the Nourishment of Nature and the Art of Solitude in the Age of Screens

A modern Alice-in-Wonderland tale of self-discovery against the odds of culture.


On a Magical Do-Nothing Day: A Lovely Illustrated Ode to the Nourishment of Nature and the Art of Solitude in the Age of Screens

Generations of great thinkers have extolled the creative purpose of boredom. Long before psychologists came to understand why “fertile solitude” is the seedbed of a full life, Bertrand Russell pointed to what he called “fruitful monotony” as central to the conquest of happiness. “There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” wrote the poet May Sarton in her stunning 1938 ode to solitude. But today the fertile sanctuary of solitude is a place more endangered than any other locus of the spirit, attesting more acutely than ever to Blaise Pascal’s seventeenth-century assertion that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Now comes a warm and wondrous invitation to remastering the art of fertile solitude in On a Magical Do-Nothing Day (public library) by Italian artist and author Béatrice Alemagna, translated by Jill Davis.

The lyrical, tenderly illustrated story is told in the voice of an androgynous young protagonist who grudgingly accompanies Mom to a writing cabin in the lush, rainy woods — a place oozing boredom only alleviated by a videogame.

Eventually, concerned that this will be “another day of doing nothing,” Mom commands a break from the screen. She confiscates the game and hides it, “as usual,” only to have her discontented child find it, “as usual,” and rush outside in a bright orange raincoat, game tightly clutched as some kind of protective amulet against “this boring, wet place.”

But then, while trying to enact a scene from the game while skipping stones in the pond at the bottom of the path, the reluctant adventurer drops the console into the water and off it plummets to the bottom.

Devastation sets in — now there is nothing to do, nothingness utterly terrifying in thrusting the young protagonist into such sudden solitude with nature.

I was a small tree trapped outside in a hurricane.

The moment of despair is intercepted by a procession of four enormous snails, which offer unexpected delight with their jelly antennae and lead the way to a constellation of mushrooms — a scene that only amplifies the lovely Alice-in-Wonderland undertone of the story.

Small knees drop to the ground and small hands dig into the mud to discover “a thousand seeds and pellets, kernels, grains, roots, and berries” — an underground chest of tactile treasures, pulsating with aliveness that no screen could ever simulate. As though intuiting this awakening of awe, nature turns up the spectacle in a dramatic downpour, sunbeams piercing through the rainclouds to reveal a world seemingly reborn.

With terror now transfigured into newfound mirth, the raincoated explorer surrenders to this strange new wonderland, climbing a tree, drinking raindrops from branches “like an animal would,” marveling at bugs, talking to a bird, wondering:

Why hadn’t I done these things before today?

Upon the triumphant return, soaked to the bone and transformed to the marrow, the young adventurer takes mom’s hand and follows her into the kitchen, where they sit together looking at each other over cups of hot chocolate and savoring the quiet splendor of presence.

That is it. That’s all we did.

On this magical do-nothing day.

Complement the splendid On a Magical Do-Nothing Day with the vintage gem How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself. For a grownup counterpart, revisit Olivia Laing’s masterly The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone and Wendell Berry on the solitary rewards of the wilderness.


donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


newsletter

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On a Magical Do-Nothing Day: A Lovely Illustrated Ode to the Nourishment of Nature and the Art of Solitude in the Age of Screens

A modern Alice-in-Wonderland tale of self-discovery against the odds of culture.


On a Magical Do-Nothing Day: A Lovely Illustrated Ode to the Nourishment of Nature and the Art of Solitude in the Age of Screens

Generations of great thinkers have extolled the creative purpose of boredom. Long before psychologists came to understand why “fertile solitude” is the seedbed of a full life, Bertrand Russell pointed to what he called “fruitful monotony” as central to the conquest of happiness. “There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” wrote the poet May Sarton in her stunning 1938 ode to solitude. But today the fertile sanctuary of solitude is a place more endangered than any other locus of the spirit, attesting more acutely than ever to Blaise Pascal’s seventeenth-century assertion that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Now comes a warm and wondrous invitation to remastering the art of fertile solitude in On a Magical Do-Nothing Day (public library) by Italian artist and author Béatrice Alemagna, translated by Jill Davis.

The lyrical, tenderly illustrated story is told in the voice of an androgynous young protagonist who grudgingly accompanies Mom to a writing cabin in the lush, rainy woods — a place oozing boredom only alleviated by a videogame.

Eventually, concerned that this will be “another day of doing nothing,” Mom commands a break from the screen. She confiscates the game and hides it, “as usual,” only to have her discontented child find it, “as usual,” and rush outside in a bright orange raincoat, game tightly clutched as some kind of protective amulet against “this boring, wet place.”

But then, while trying to enact a scene from the game while skipping stones in the pond at the bottom of the path, the reluctant adventurer drops the console into the water and off it plummets to the bottom.

Devastation sets in — now there is nothing to do, nothingness utterly terrifying in thrusting the young protagonist into such sudden solitude with nature.

I was a small tree trapped outside in a hurricane.

The moment of despair is intercepted by a procession of four enormous snails, which offer unexpected delight with their jelly antennae and lead the way to a constellation of mushrooms — a scene that only amplifies the lovely Alice-in-Wonderland undertone of the story.

Small knees drop to the ground and small hands dig into the mud to discover “a thousand seeds and pellets, kernels, grains, roots, and berries” — an underground chest of tactile treasures, pulsating with aliveness that no screen could ever simulate. As though intuiting this awakening of awe, nature turns up the spectacle in a dramatic downpour, sunbeams piercing through the rainclouds to reveal a world seemingly reborn.

With terror now transfigured into newfound mirth, the raincoated explorer surrenders to this strange new wonderland, climbing a tree, drinking raindrops from branches “like an animal would,” marveling at bugs, talking to a bird, wondering:

Why hadn’t I done these things before today?

Upon the triumphant return, soaked to the bone and transformed to the marrow, the young adventurer takes mom’s hand and follows her into the kitchen, where they sit together looking at each other over cups of hot chocolate and savoring the quiet splendor of presence.

That is it. That’s all we did.

On this magical do-nothing day.

Complement the splendid On a Magical Do-Nothing Day with the vintage gem How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself. For a grownup counterpart, revisit Olivia Laing’s masterly The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone and Wendell Berry on the solitary rewards of the wilderness.


donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


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7 Favorite Science Books of 2017

From trees to consciousness to black holes, an immersion into the glory of the knowable and the splendor of the unknown.


7 Favorite Science Books of 2017

The great marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson, who sparked the environmental movement with her 1962 book Silent Spring and who pioneered the cultural aesthetic of writing about science in poetic prose, believed that “there can be no separate literature of science,” for “the aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth,” which is also the aim of literature. I have written at length about what separates great science books from the merely good, but I keep coming back to the elegant criterion Carson both named and exemplified.

Since I find myself spending less and less time dwelling in the literatures of the present, and more and more in those of the past, I can’t speak to the “best” science books of the year in any ultimate and comprehensive sense. But I can and do have distinct favorites among those I did read — books which embody, in varying degrees, Carson’s example and which accomplish, in various ways, what all great science books accomplish, whether they do so from the perspective of microbiology or of astrophysics: They humble us into remembering that we are but a tiny part of a vast and complex universe operating on scales of space and time in which ours holds no special supremacy.

Here are seven such books.

THE RIVER OF CONSCIOUSNESS

In The River of Consciousness (public library) — a posthumous collection of essays, including many never before published — the warm genius of Oliver Sacks comes alive as he tackles everything from memory to Freud’s little-known contributions to neurology and Darwin’s love of flowers to the nature of creativity. In his signature Sacksian way, he explores the universal through the deeply personal — not only with case studies of his patients, as he has done so beautifully for nearly half a century across his classic books, but this time with the case study of his own self as his body and mind go through the process of aging and eventually dying. Sacks brings the friendly curiosity for which he is so beloved to this ultimate testing ground of character, emerging once more as the brilliant, lovable human he was.

Read more here.

THE SONGS OF TREES

“Trees speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons,” an English gardener wrote in the seventeenth century. “When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse rhapsodized two centuries later in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”

For biologist David George Haskell, the notion of listening to trees is neither metaphysical abstraction nor mere metaphor. In The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors (public library), Haskell visits a dozen of the world’s most beautiful trees to explore, in immensely lyrical prose and with an almost spiritual reverence, the masterful, magical way in which nature weaves the warp thread of individual organisms and the weft thread of relationships into the fabric of life.

Read more here.

CODE GIRLS

During WWII, when Richard Feynman was recruited as one of the country’s most promising physicists to work on the Manhattan Project in a secret laboratory in Los Alamos, his young wife Arline was writing him love letters in code from her deathbed. While Arline was merely having fun with the challenge of bypassing the censors at the laboratory’s Intelligence Office, all across the country thousands of women were working as cryptographers for the government — women who would come to constitute more than half of America’s codebreaking force during the war. While Alan Turing was decrypting Nazi communication across the Atlantic, some eleven thousand women were breaking enemy code in America.

Their story, as heroic as that of the women who dressed and fought as men in the Civil War, as fascinating and untold as those of the “Harvard Computers” who revolutionized astronomy in the nineteenth century and the black women mathematicians who powered space exploration in the twentieth, is what Liza Mundy tells in Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II (public library) — a masterly portrait of the brilliant, unheralded women — women with names like Blanche and Edith and Dot — who were recruited into lives they never could have imagined, lives believed to have saved incalculable other lives by bringing the war to a sooner end through the intersection of language and mathematics.

Read more here.

WHY TIME FLIES

In Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation (public library), New Yorker staff writer Alan Burdick presents a layered, rigorously researched, lyrically narrated inquiry into the most befuddling dimension of existence. From the temporal meditations of the ancient philosophers to the last hundred years of ingenious psychological experiments, he explores such aspects of his subject — a nearly infinite subject, to be sure, which makes his endeavor all the more impressive — as the temporal underpinnings of empathy, why time dilates and contracts depending on whether we are having fun or facing danger, how a mother’s hormones set a fetus’s circadian clock, and what we are actually measuring when we speak of keeping time.

Read more here.

THE GREAT UNKNOWN

In The Great Unknown: Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science (public library), English mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, who serves as chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, explores the puzzlement and promise of seven grand scientific questions that are as yet unanswered but are, in theory, answerable. He terms them “edges,” marking horizons of knowledge beyond which we can’t currently see — from consciousness to the complexities of chaos to the nature of dark matter to whether the universe is infinite or finite, or whether it is even a universe or a multiverse. In this age of aggressive certitudes, how refreshing and needed to be reminded of the beauty and value of the unknown as our foremost frontier of civilizational growth.

Read more here.

THE DIALOGUES

In his revolutionary treatise Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo employed the ancient rhetorical device of dialogue to reconfigured our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Four centuries later, English theoretical physicist Clifford Johnson turns to the same device in The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe (public library) — a most unusual and original graphic novel (or, rather, book-length comic of cosmic nonfiction) exploring some of the most fascinating facets of modern science. Strikingly, Johnson took a semester off from teaching to learn to draw and illustrated the book himself, then populated his panels with refreshingly diverse characters of varied races, genders, and nationalities. Interpolating between the roles of explainer and explainee without any dominant pattern of presumed authority, they venture into illuminating conversations about black holes, quantum electrodynamics, relativity, the multiverse theory, and other thrilling puzzlements of science.

Read more here.

BONUS: BLACK HOLE BLUES

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (public library) by astrophysicist and novelist Janna Levin is one of those rare achievements where a science book enchants not only with the thrill of its subject, but with the splendor of its prose. Although it was originally published in the autumn of 2016, there are two reasons — quite apart from its being one of the finest books I’ve ever read — that merit its inclusion this year. The first is trivial: The paperback was released in 2017. The second is monumental: The book is the definitive chronicle of the discovery that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics — the landmark detection of gravitational waves, the pinnacle of the century-old quest to hear the sound of spacetime. One of the world’s preeminent astrophysicist, Levin is also a masterly novelist who brings her gift as a literary artist to the greatest astrophysical leap in our understanding of the universe since Galileo first pointed his crude brass telescope at the heavens.

Read more here.

* * *

I discussed some of these books during my annual visit to Science Friday:

And because great science books continue to illuminate and enchant long past their publication, do revisit the selections for 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.


donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


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The Heartening Illustrated Story of How Blues Pioneer Muddy Waters Transmuted Loss and Loneliness into Music That Changed History

“The guitar howled like a wolf: powerful, lonely, and proud.”


Beethoven believed that music saved his life — he found in it “the joy of suffering overcome.” A century and a half later, this hard-earned joy alighted to another musician of groundbreaking genius and far-reaching influence: McKinley Morganfield (April 4, 1913–April 30, 1983), better known as Muddy Waters — a nickname the pioneering blues musician acquired as a child for being fond of playing in the muddy creek by the house where his grandmother raised him after his single mother died when he was a baby.

Muddy found in music a kind of self-salvation — a way to “take fate by the throat,” as Beethoven had resolved to do in the face of his own misfortune — then went on to change the sonic fate of the twentieth century, inspiring the birth of rock’n’roll. “All of us, we’re links in a chain,” Pete Seger — who greatly admired Waters — observed of the lineage of creative influences. The long chain of Muddy Waters’s influence stretches from AC/DC to Bob Dylan to Martin Scorsese. The Rolling Stones took their name from one of his songs, as did Rolling Stone magazine.

His heartening example of transmuting loss and loneliness into fuel for creative breakthrough comes alive in Michael Mahin’s Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters (public library), arrestingly illustrated by Evan Turk — a wonderful addition to the ever-growing canon of picture-books celebrating great artists and scientists.

One night, Muddy watched his hero, blues legend Son House, smash an empty bottle, take the bottleneck, and smooth its jagged edges over a fire.

“This is called a slide,” he said, dragging the bottleneck up the strings.

The guitar howled like a wolf: powerful, lonely, and proud.

That was the sound of the Mississippi Delta. That was the sound Muddy heard in his heart.

Complement Muddy with other lovely picture-books celebrating visionary artists, writes, and scientists: Ada Lovelace, E.E. Cummings, Paul Gauguin, Frida Kahlo, Henri Matisse, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Louise Bourgeois, Albert Einstein, John Lewis, Paul Erdős, and Nellie Bly.


donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


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Jad Abumrad Reads an Ode to the Glory of Tiny Creatures and Celebrates His Mother’s Scientific Persistence

In praise of the invisible heroisms and unglamorous triumphs of nature and the human spirit.


Jad Abumrad Reads an Ode to the Glory of Tiny Creatures and Celebrates His Mother’s Scientific Persistence

The Universe in Verse was a highlight of my year — a beautiful evening celebrating the improbable yet wondrous intersection of science and poetry, raising funds for the defense of science and the arts from political assault. Artists, writers, and scientists read poems about trailblazers of science, many of whom women, and about scientific discoveries that have revolutionized our understanding of the universe and of our place in it.

Jad Abumrad of Radiolab, himself the product of two scientists, prefaced his reading of poet Pattiann Rogers’s tender ode to single-cell creatures with an homage to his mother’s persistence in studying a single protein for thirty-five years — a testament to the unglamorous, invisible heroisms that have propelled the vast majority of humanity’s scientific endeavor, proof of what pioneering microbiologist Erwin Chargaff extolled as the value of unremembered work. Please enjoy:

ADDRESS: THE ARCHAEANS, ONE-CELL CREATURES
by Pattiann Rogers

Although most are totally naked
and too scant for even the slightest
color and although they have no voice
that I’ve ever heard for cry or song, they are,
nevertheless, more than mirage, more
than hallucination, more than falsehood.

They have confronted sulfuric
boiling black sea bottoms and stayed,
held on under ten tons of polar ice,
established themselves in dense salts
and acids, survived eating metal ions.
They are more committed than oblivion,
more prolific than stars.

Far too ancient for scripture, each
one bears in its one cell one text—
the first whit of alpha, the first
jot of bearing, beneath the riling
sun the first nourishing of self.

Too lavish for saints, too trifling
for baptism, they have existed
throughout never gaining girth enough
to hold a firm hope of salvation.
Too meager in heart for compassion,
too lean for tears, less in substance
than sacrifice, not one has ever
carried a cross anywhere.

And not one of their trillions
has ever been given a tombstone.
I’ve never noticed a lessening
of light in the ceasing of any one
of them. They are more mutable
than mere breathing and vanishing,
more mysterious than resurrection,
too minimal for death.

For more highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy, my reading of Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska’s ode to the number pi, Amanda Palmer’s reading of Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, poet Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, Rosanne Cash’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie, Diane Ackerman’s poem about our search for extraterrestrial life, playwright Sarah Jones’s chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall, and poet Elizabeth Alexander’s cautionary poem about the misuses of science, then watch the complete show for a two-hour serenade to science and the transformative power of poetry.


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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


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Code Girls: The Untold Story of the Women Cryptographers Who Fought WWII at the Intersection of Language and Mathematics

“Virtually as soon as humans developed the ability to speak and write, somebody somewhere felt the desire to say something to somebody else that could not be understood by others.”


Code Girls: The Untold Story of the Women Cryptographers Who Fought WWII at the Intersection of Language and Mathematics

During WWII, when Richard Feynman was recruited as one of the country’s most promising physicists to work on the Manhattan Project in a secret laboratory in Los Alamos, his young wife Arline was writing him love letters in code from her deathbed. While Arline was merely having fun with the challenge of bypassing the censors at the laboratory’s Intelligence Office, all across the country thousands of women were working as cryptographers for the government — women who would come to constitute more than half of America’s codebreaking force during the war. While Alan Turing was decrypting Nazi communication across the Atlantic, some eleven thousand women were breaking enemy code in America.

Their story, as heroic as that of the women who dressed and fought as men in the Civil War, as fascinating and untold as those of the “Harvard Computers” who revolutionized astronomy in the nineteenth century and the black women mathematicians who powered space exploration in the twentieth, is what Liza Mundy tells in Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II (public library).

The Navy transformed a girls’ school campus into housing for its female codebreakers.

A splendid writer and an impressive scholar, Mundy tracked down and interviewed more than twenty surviving “code girls,” trawled hundreds of boxes containing archival documents, and successfully petitioned for the declassification of more than a dozen oral histories. Out of these puzzle pieces she constructs a masterly portrait of the brilliant, unheralded women — women with names like Blanche and Edith and Dot — who were recruited into lives they never could have imagined, lives believed to have saved incalculable other lives by bringing the war to a sooner end.

Driven partly by patriotism, but mostly by pure love of that singular intersection of mathematics and language where cryptography lives, these “high grade” young women, as the military recruiters called them, came from all over the country and had only one essential thing in common — their answers to two seemingly strange questions. Mundy traces the inception of this female codebreaking force:

A handful of letters materialized in college mailboxes as early as November 1941. Ann White, a senior at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, received hers on a fall afternoon not long after leaving an exiled poet’s lecture on Spanish romanticism.

The letter was waiting when she returned to her dormitory for lunch. Opening it, she was astonished to see that it had been sent by Helen Dodson, a professor in Wellesley’s Astronomy Department. Miss Dodson was inviting her to a private interview in the observatory. Ann, a German major, had the sinking feeling she might be required to take an astronomy course in order to graduate. But a few days later, when Ann made her way along Wellesley’s Meadow Path and entered the observatory, a low domed building secluded on a hill far from the center of campus, she found that Helen Dodson had only two questions to ask her.

Did Ann White like crossword puzzles, and was she engaged to be married?

Elizabeth Colby, a Wellesley math major, received the same unexpected summons. So did Nan Westcott, a botany major; Edith Uhe (psychology); Gloria Bosetti (Italian); Blanche DePuy (Spanish); Bea Norton (history); and Ann White’s good friend Louise Wilde, an English major. In all, more than twenty Wellesley seniors received a secret invitation and gave the same replies. Yes, they liked crossword puzzles, and no, they were not on the brink of marriage.

At Arlington Hall in Virginia, Ann Caracristi (far right), an English major from Russell Sage College, worked on developing an “order of battle” disclosing the location of Japanese troops.

Letters and clandestine questioning sessions spread across other campuses, particularly those known for strong scientific curricula — from Vassar, where astronomer Maria Mitchell paved the way for American women in science, to Mount Holyoke, the “castle of science” where Emily Dickinson composed her botanical herbarium. The young women who answered the odd questions correctly were summoned to secret meetings, where they learned they were being invited to work for the U.S. Navy as “cryptanalysts.” They were to take a training in codebreaking and, if they completed it successfully, would take jobs with the Navy after graduation, as civilians. They could tell no one about the appointment — not their parents, not their girlfriends, not their fiancés.

First, they had to solve a series of problem sets, which would be graded in Washington to determine if they made the cut to the next stage. Mundy writes:

And so the young women did their strange new homework. They learned which letters of the English language occur with the greatest frequency; which letters often travel together in pairs, like s and t; which travel in triplets, like est and ing and ive, or in packs of four, like tion. They studied terms like “route transposition” and “cipher alphabets” and “polyalphabetic substitution cipher.” They mastered the Vigenère square, a method of disguising letters using a tabular method dating back to the Renaissance. They learned about things called the Playfair and Wheatstone ciphers. They pulled strips of paper through holes cut in cardboard. They strung quilts across their rooms so that roommates who had not been invited to take the secret course could not see what they were up to. They hid homework under desk blotters. They did not use the term “code breaking” outside the confines of the weekly meetings, not even to friends taking the same course.

Women operated the machines that tackled the German Enigma ciphers Alan Turing would eventually crack.

These young women’s acumen, and their willingness to accept the cryptic invitations, would become America’s secret weapon in assembling a formidable wartime codebreaking operation in record time. They would also furnish a different model of genius — one more akin to the relational genius that makes a forest successful. Mundy writes:

Code breaking is far from a solitary endeavor, and in many ways it’s the opposite of genius. Or, rather: Genius itself is often a collective phenomenon. Success in code breaking depends on flashes of inspiration, yes, but it also depends on the careful maintaining of files, so that a coded message that has just arrived can be compared to a similar message that came in six months ago. Code breaking during World War II was a gigantic team effort. The war’s cryptanalytic achievements were what Frank Raven, a renowned naval code breaker from Yale who supervised a team of women, called “crew jobs.” These units were like giant brains; the people working in them were a living, breathing, shared memory. Codes are broken not by solitary individuals but by groups of people trading pieces of things they have learned and noticed and collected, little glittering bits of numbers and other useful items they have stored up in their heads like magpies, things they remember while looking over one another’s shoulders, pointing out patterns that turn out to be the key that unlocks the code.

The Army’s secret African American unit in Virginia, mostly female and unknown to many of their white colleagues, tabulated records of companies trading with Hitler or Mitsubishi.

But although codebreaking has entered the popular imagination through the portal of war, often depicted with a kind of intellectual glamor that aligns it with spies and superheroes, it spans a far vaster cultural spectrum of uses as a tool of communication and un-communication. Mundy examines its history and essential elements:

Codes have been around for as long as civilization, maybe longer. Virtually as soon as humans developed the ability to speak and write, somebody somewhere felt the desire to say something to somebody else that could not be understood by others. The point of a coded message is to engage in intimate, often urgent communication with another person and to exclude others from reading or listening in. It is a system designed to enable communication and to prevent it.

Both aspects are important. A good code must be simple enough to be readily used by those privy to the system but tough enough that it can’t be easily cracked by those who are not. Julius Caesar developed a cipher in which each letter was replaced by a letter three spaces ahead in the alphabet (A would be changed to D, B to E, and so forth), which met the ease-of-use requirement but did not satisfy the “toughness” standard. Mary, Queen of Scots, used coded missives to communicate with the faction that supported her claim to the English throne, which — unfortunately for her — were read by her cousin Elizabeth and led to her beheading. In medieval Europe, with its shifting alliances and palace intrigues, coded letters were an accepted convention, and so were quiet attempts to slice open diplomatic pouches and read them. Monks used codes, as did Charlemagne, the Inquisitor of Malta, the Vatican (enthusiastically and often), Islamic scholars, clandestine lovers. So did Egyptian rulers and Arab philosophers. The European Renaissance — with its flowering of printing and literature and a coming-together of mathematical and linguistic learning — led to a number of new cryptographic systems. Armchair philosophers amused themselves pursuing the “perfect cipher,” fooling around with clever tables and boxes that provided ways to replace or redistribute the letters in a message, which could be sent as gibberish and reassembled at the other end. Some of these clever tables were not broken for centuries; trying to solve them became a Holmes-and-Moriarty contest among thinkers around the globe.

Even in the context of war, even in the subset of women cryptographers, the history of codebreaking predates WWII. It stretches back to the world’s first Great War, to a strange haven under the auspices of a Mad Hatter character by the name of George Fabyan — an eccentric, habitually disheveled millionaire with little formal education, who built himself an elaborate private Wonderland complete with a working lighthouse, a Japanese garden, a Roman-style bathing pool fed by fresh spring water, a Dutch mill transported piece by piece from Holland, and an enormous rope replica of a spider’s web for recreation. On these strange grounds, Fabyan constructed Riverbank Laboratories — a pseudo-scientific shrine to his determination to “wrest the secrets of nature” by way of acoustics, agriculture, and, crucially, literary manuscripts.

Fabyan subscribed to a conspiracy theory that the works of William Shakespeare were actually authored by Sir Francis Bacon, who allegedly encoded evidence of his authorship into the texts. The millionaire acquired rare manuscripts, including a 1623 folio of one of Shakespeare’s plays, then hired a team of researchers — he could afford the best minds in the country — to prove the theory by analyzing the text in search of coded messages. Under these improbable circumstances, he incubated the talent that would become the U.S. military’s first concerted cryptanalytic force.

Elizebeth Friedman

Among Fabyan’s hires was Elizebeth Smith — an intelligent and driven young midwesterner, one of nine children, who had put herself through college after her father denied her the opportunity. In 1916, Fabyan recruited Smith to be the public face of his Baconian codebreaking operation. Soon after she moved to Riverbank Laboratories, Smith began to suspect that the Shakespearian conspiracy theory was just that, sustained by a cultish team of cranks who fed on confirmation bias as they searched for “evidence.” Among Fabyan’s staff was another doubter — William Friedman, a polymathish geneticist from Cornell, living on the second floor of the windmill. Elizebeth and William bonded over their dissent on long bike rides and swims in the Roman pool. Within a year, they were married — a marriage of equals in every way. But although they saw clearly the ludicrousness of Fabyan’s theory, they were too fascinated by the pure art-science of codes and ciphers to leave. Elizebeth moved into the windmill. The couple would soon become the country’s most sought-after codebreaking team as the government outsourced its cryptanalytic efforts to Riverbank. But although the Friedmans worked in tandem, when the Army set out to hire them, they offered William $3,000 and Elizebeth $1,520.

When the team began working for the government in Washington — both still in their twenties, heading a team of thirty — they were decoding every kind of intercepted foreign communication suspected to contain military information. Some did. Most did not — one turned out to be a Czechoslovakian love letter.

Elizebeth Friedman — who went on to have a formidable career in law enforcement, training men for a new codebreaking unit for the Coast Guard — is one of the many women whose stories, all different and all fascinating, Mundy tells in Code Girls, a thoroughly wonderful read in its entirety. Complement it with the story of the the unheralded women astronomers who revolutionized our understanding of the universe decades before they could vote.


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