Talk about legacy.
For the third time in five years, a team from Eastern Mennonite University has won the 2022 international Kryptos Codebreaking Competition. The event, hosted by University of Central Washington, attracted the largest field in the history of the contest – 77 teams from across the U.S. and Great Britain.
Senior Hannah Leaman, junior Caleb Hostetler and first-year Mana Acosta solved the three required puzzles in record time. To win, they tapped into their abilities to recognize patterns; apply Baconian and Swagman ciphers and Morse code (Hostetler happens to have learned it for fun while he was in high school); and do some “mad Googling,” the team said.
If you know a little more about their codebreaking resumes, though, this win is not a total surprise.
Leaman, who was awarded the 2022 Outstanding Mathematics Senior Award by EMU faculty, leaves EMU among several talented students who have left their mark in recent years.
- This is Leaman’s second Kryptos win; she teamed up with Cameron Byer ‘21 and Ben Stutzman ‘20 to win in 2020 and with Daniel Harder ’20 to take second in 2019.
- In 2021, Hostetler (with Byer and Noah Swartendruber) finished in the top six teams; Leaman’s team (with Ike Esh ’22 and Silas Clymer ’21) finished first in the next recognition tier.
- Leaman and Hostetler (with Byer) also advanced in 2020 to the International Collegiate Programing Contest’s Mid-Atlantic regionals.
- The team of Byer, Harder, and Stutzman also won the entire contest in 2018.
- EMU’s first exposure to the contest was in 2014, when they took first and third place. Those teams were also comprised of Harders – brothers Mark ’14 and Aron ’17, who are cousins of Daniel, as well as Byer, who was then a freshman at Eastern Mennonite High School.
Puzzlehunters are ‘my people’
Acosta, a first-year engineering major with a computer emphasis, is new to the mix. She experienced a bit of the excitement during a 2021 Honors Weekend visit, which featured an escape room activity created by the EMU Math Club.
That club was “basically a puzzle club,” Leaman and Hostetler explained, and that’s partly the reason for the university’s recent Kryptos success.
“When I came to EMU, there were a lot of students who were really into puzzlehunting and I fit right in,” Leaman said.
Hostetler, one year behind Leaman, ticked off the names of fellow students who also took delight in doing puzzlehunts in their free time, including the famous MIT Mystery Hunt over MLK Day Weekend. (The club also hosts occasional puzzle events, like escape rooms and Puzzlepaloozas for students on campus.)
“I saw the puzzlehunting going on and I thought ‘Alright, these are my people. I need to figure out how to become friends with them,” he said.
The adrenaline rush and intellectual challenge of applying both practical and esoteric knowledge creates tight bonds of friendship.
“I can’t tell you how many 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. calls I’ve been on since coming here,” Leaman said. “A lot of us are still in touch even after graduation doing puzzles. We’ve had teams that included alumni still involved here.”
Many of those students are pictured at left in this 2018 article we creatively titled: “EMU teams place 18th and 48th regionally in international programming contest – and that’s really, really good.”
Participation in the Kryptos contest is entirely voluntary, says professor of mathematics Daniel Showalter, but has benefits beyond the experience of competition.
“Student engagement in self-driven competitions like this make it easy for professors to craft strong recommendation letters,” he added. One result: Leaman will work in leadership at an elite mathematics camp, while Hostetler earned a competitive spot in a funded summer research program at Carnegie Mellon University.
Cramming in the win
Fitting in the Kryptos contest can be a challenge for these invariably multi-talented students. This year, Leaman was student-teaching during the spring semester. She wanted to actually get a good night’s sleep instead of staying up all night. “I told everyone I would leave by 10:30, but at the same time I was really committed.”
Acosta was recovering from a recent concussion suffered in an intramurals soccer game. Despite feeling mentally fatigued and drained before arriving to their assigned meeting spot, having a puzzle in front of her to solve gave her some focus and energy.
Hostetler missed the first hour of competition to play in a concert with the EMU Jazz Band. “By the time I got there,” he said, “they had solved the first puzzle.”
The second one took a little longer, but it helped that Hostetler knew Morse code.
Here’s their explanation they submitted with the answer:
We used frequency analysis of single numbers as well as pairs against the English language frequency of bigrams/letters to eliminate choices for the 9 options of morse dashes/dots and Xs. We assumed the word “THE” was in the plaintext, and found a number string 928869 that could replicate an instance of “THE” that also gave us English at the beginning of the ciphertext. We continued from there to solve the remainder of the cipher.
WE HAVE A RARE SHIPMENT OF PAPPY VAN WINKLE TO DISTRIBUTE MEET AT THE WAREHOUSE ON CANAL STREET TUESDAY MIDNIGHT
Immediately after submission, they received a message back from the contest organizers with congratulations for being the first team to solve Puzzle 2.
That occurred at about 9 p.m., a whole 1.5 hours before Leaman’s self-imposed curfew. Adrenaline, and a sugar rush fueled by some candy, kicked in.
The final puzzle was “a combination cipher and crossword,” Leaman recalled. After finding a reference to Swagman and discovering it was a cipher, further encryption/decryption didn’t get them anywhere.
“We knew the cipher but could not figure out how to apply it to the encryption so we were losing our momentum,” Hostetler recalled.
From a standstill, the team moved to another strategy – “brute force solving,” a trial-and-error process while looking for cribs, or suspected plaintext.
“I saw the word puzzle forming and my heart stopped, literally,” Leaman said. “That could not have been good for my health.”
Despite the physical detriments of the competition – Acosta said the excitement meant she didn’t go to sleep for a while that night – the team was thrilled with their success.
Acosta is hooked for next year and Hostetler, of course, plans to be back to continue EMU’s strong showing.
And Leaman, who has accepted a position teaching next year at Harrisonburg High School, says she’ll be creating some puzzles for students. She leaves EMU as one of the most talented mathematicians in the university’s history – and one of its top codebreakers.