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Cork teenager devises a new, faster e-mail code

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — A teenager who has been hailed as a mathematical genius after winning the Young Scientist Exhibition with a project involving a new code for sending secrets messages by computer is struggling to get back to normal in school after being inundated with job, business and university offers.

Sarah Flannery, 16, a pupil at Scoil Mhuire Gan Small in Blarney, Co. Cork, made a breakthrough in speeding up the complex encrypting of e-mail messages and electronic commerce on the internet.

An outside mathematical expert had to be called in by the judges to double-check and assess her project before they decided on the £1,000 prize-winner.

Being able to send confidential information on the internet, and to do it at high speed, is regarded as vital if its use for business is to develop.

The main protection code being used worldwide at present is the RSA system which was developed 21 years ago by three students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Sarah said the RSA algorithm takes about half an hour to encode a big message to the recommended levels of security whereas hers will only take one minute.

Flannery’s algorithm formula is called the Cayley-Purser code.

She named it after Dr Michael Purser of the Baltimore Technology company who started her on the idea last March and Arthur Cayley, a 19th century English mathematician whose researches included matrices which she uses in the code.

Despite all the offers, she doesn’t think she will even apply for a patent, though one of the judges advised her to do so.

"My project is mainly maths. Patenting maths doesn’t help anyone to help science to move on again from where it is at the moment," she said.

Her father David, who lectures in mathematics at the Cork Institute of Technology, said people had called thinking the project had "fine business potential."

"To be truthful, we are not anxious in pursuing that at the moment. We would far rather the girl got settled back to being a normal student and do her studying and get on with life."

He said it was possible she could stand to make a fortune but they had not thought about that aspect of her success.

"I don’t want her getting too preoccupied with that end of the thing at the moment. I would far rather at the moment that she enjoyed it and the message went out to other young people that it is a joy to do science, it is a joy to think, and that’s the real reason you should do it."

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