Some eagle-eyed Freshers might have noticed the curious word-search on the University’s 2011 prospectus cover, but few realized it was the key to a secretive code-breaking contest.
Amongst those few was Agata Frankowska – then a 6th former at Leweston School Sherborne – who by solving the cover’s crossword found herself embarking on a trail-blazing code hunt.
The enormous puzzle consisted of several stages, pushing challengers to use various skills and media to advance to the next step; those curious enough to decipher the word search puzzle on the prospectus found the instructions for a complex algorithm. Anyone who got this far would discover a cryptic quote alluding to various Oxford University trivia, which in turn led to a more complex physics problem once attempted by Lewis Carrol.
Frankowska, now a Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Southampton, cracked the code in one week. The competition judges promptly whisked her away to the dreaming spires for an awards ceremony. Professor Marcus de Sautoy presented her with an iPod and Colossus book as prizes for solving the puzzle.
Frankowska said the process of solving the puzzle was initially “a bit random” but also a “great experience overall.”
“At first I was just picking out random words on the crossword. On the back of the book it obviously said which words to cross out, but I didn’t notice that at first, ” she said.
“It didn’t take that long to solve. It took about a week or so to finish it, though I didn’t have that much time to do it. It felt good to solve the puzzle, but to be honest I didn’t actually expect it I to be a proper competition, I got there and it was very formal and lots of other award ceremonies going on and all of a sudden I’ve got this iPod touch. So yes, very happy to have won.”
Professor Du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics and Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, said: ‘The code-cracking challenge on this Undergraduate Prospectus was a great way to engage prospective students in the fun that can be had in tackling tough problems and getting that rush of adrenaline when you suddenly understand what’s going on. That’s what studying at university is all about. I was amazed at how many layers of codes and puzzles were involved in getting to the final solution. Congratulations to Agata Frankowska for being the first to cross the winning line.’