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BLOG: Listen to your muse: A cryptographer’s tale

Zafar Anjum | March 1, 2012
There is no other trick to achieving success than to hard work and self-belief.

I am here at the RSA Conference 2012 which is being held in San Francisco from 27 February to 2 March. It is a major security industry event that brings together all security thought leaders to deliberate on the security challenges of our time.

You name any decent company that is engaged in the security business and it is here at the Moscone Centre. A huge hall at the basement is chock-a-block with their exhibits. Most of the general sessions and panel discussions are being held at another hall. There are some by-invitation only panel discussions and closed door expert sessions.

Yesterday, Martin E. Hellman, Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering, Stanford University, was given the RSA Lifetime Achievement Award here. And his story is one of the most interesting ones that I have heard here. I wanted to share it with you.

Martin E. Hellman, Professor Emeritus at Stanford, is best known for his invention, with Diffie and Merkle, of public key cryptography. In addition to many other uses, this technology forms the basis for secure transactions on the Internet. He has also been a long-time contributor to the computer privacy debate, starting with the issue of DES key size in 1975 and culminating with service (1994-96) on the National Research Council's Committee to Study National Cryptographic Policy, whose main recommendations have since been implemented.

Prior to joining Stanford's faculty in 1971, Hellman was at IBM's Watson Research Center and served as an Assistant Professor of EE at MIT. Hellman received his B.E. from New York University in 1966, and his M.S. and Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1967 and 1969, all in Electrical Engineering.

Before he came on stage to receive the award, we were shown a video of Professor Hellman. In the video, he talked about his childhood. He was a shy child growing up in the Bronx in 1950s and being studious, it was difficult for him to fit in with other kids. But he turned his inward nature into a kind of creative defiance. "Who wants to be a normal kid?" he would say to others who mocked his social inadequacies.

Years later, he became a pioneering cryptographer. When he was doing his research in the area of his choice, many said he was wasting his time, he said on stage. They said he was foolish. But he stuck to his guns. The result was the public key cryptography which is now widely adopted.

"Sometimes, wisdom can masquerade as foolishness," he said on the stage, accepting the award. Listen to the muse that whispers to your ears-that was his parting advice.

Professor Hellman's life is yet another example of believing in oneself, of having the courage of conviction. I wish God gives all of us that kind of courage and self-belief.


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