Recently Marvel Comics asked comic book fandom to help decipher some hidden codes in Collin Kelly and Carmen Carnero’s Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty series. Something like this is a fun way to get readers and fans to give more attention to their material, and it led me to research and learn more about code-breaking. Code-breaking appears in other areas of pop culture, with fantasy movies like National Treasure and The Da Vinci Code, or films based on real people like Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. So where did this research into code-breaking take me?
First, I started with the cover of Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty #4 and had to figure out what was a code and what was a clue. When you inspect the cover, you’ll notice a list of appropriately deciphered binary codes on the left side. This excellent article, “Write Your Name in Binary Code” by Ariel Zych, helped me quickly understand how the system works with a great conversion sheet.
Unfortunately, the binary code was not the cipher I needed. As I continued my search for information, I started reading Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty #1 and noticed that Steve Rogers heard some coded messages. With that he called upon his friends, the Radio Company, to help. I searched for “Radio Company,” leading me to the AVA Radio Company and Marian Rejewski. I thought I’d hit pay dirt, as these were significant players in code-breaking.
The AVA Radio Company designed and built many cipher machines that the Polish Cipher Bureau used during World War II. The company was highly thought of and eventually received other clients, one of whom was the Warsaw Meteorological Institute’s Jean Lugeon, who performed some of the first modern forays into radio astronomy.
Rejewski was a real-life hero who helped defeat Germany, a gifted Polish mathematician who could keep up with the extra unique demands of the Polish Cipher Bureau and his college studies. After graduating with a Master’s of Philosophy in mathematics, he still worked with the Cipher Bureau on decoding intercepted German radio messages.
A pivotal moment in the war came when Rejewski and a group of cryptologists deciphered a German Navy code that was an exchange with a six-word question followed by a four-character response. Their discovery was the question, “When was Frederick the Great born?” and the response “1712.” I’d imagine there was much frustration throughout this process, as the exchange had no guarantees of format or topic.
This is probably where Rejewski’s background in math and philosophy helped him to continue code-breaking. There would have to be a love of the challenge and a determination that would garner his superiors’ attention, leading to his work on the infamous Enigma Cipher Machine. This was a successful tool in the German armed forces which could decode a broad set of combinations. And the code changed daily!
Rejewski used symmetry and congruency to help him understand the codes and potential arrangements. The Theorem was, “two permutations are conjugate if and only if they have the same cycle structure,” which would be dubbed “the Theorem that won World War II.” Rejewski’s use of the Theorem and his examples of using patterns inspired me to start looking more at style within the comic’s code.
As a math teacher, I always encourage people to build their problem-solving skills. Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty‘s challenge led to a fun mystery, pushing me to learn more about code-breaking and its place in history. Coding is a great way to get your message across while keeping it secret, and it’s exciting to see if you can intercept and crack others’ messages. Here’s my cipher and the codes from some of the comics. Enjoy!
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