The Man Who Breaks Codes

Nick Patterson's three lives in applied mathematics
Nick Patterson. Photo by Tony RinaldoNick Patterson. Photo by Tony Rinaldo
By Corydon Ireland

On a recent sunny morning, Nick Patterson sat in his second-floor Byerly Hall office at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. On his desk, a computer screen glowed with dense columns of figures. It was a data set that had finally popped into the right order. “I love it here,” he said.

Patterson meant the liberating Radcliffe fellowship, the office itself (plenty of space and sunshine), and the opportunity to study the deep human history only DNA can tell. Room 220 hinted at the two abiding interests that brought Patterson to his present work: math (all the better to study genetic codes) and history (all the better to investigate the elusive admixtures that make us the humans we are today). A whiteboard in his office sang with joyous lines of numbers and formulas. A scattering of books were titles about the ancient world.

At Radcliffe, Patterson is investigating ways in which DNA reveals how populations (and languages) spread throughout Eurasia. Speakers of Indo-European languages were living 2,500 years ago in western China, on the Russian steppes, on the Atlantic coast of Europe, and in India. He asks, How did this linguistic and genetic spreading out happen? Patterson has no plans for a book, but a series of linked scholarly articles is under way. Three are in various stages of completion, including one on the origin of the Celts in what is now Great Britain. The son of Irish parents, he explains, “I am an ancient Briton studying ancient Britain.”

Starting Out

Back in the era of the Beatles and Twiggy and swinging London, Patterson, now age 69, was an undergraduate studying pure mathematics at the University of Cambridge. It was long enough ago, he said, that half his professors were veterans of Bletchley Park, the World War II code-breaking site.

Close behind him then was a London boyhood as a chess prodigy, a whiz with numbers, and a young natural at analytical thinking. “I liked doing math because I was good at it,” he said. “I could beat the other guys.” Patterson also had an early interest in history and remembers wondering, “Why is the world the way it is now?”

While earning a Cambridge PhD (“My wife made me finish,” said Patterson), he set out on a succession of careers that today seem dizzying and disparate until you consider that each was an exercise in what he came to love: applied mathematics. Inspired by the covert world of codes his professors had inhabited (at Cambridge, Bletchley was an open secret), but also simply in need of a job, the young man first became a cryptographer.

Photo by Jason GrowPhoto by Jason Grow

In 1972, he started working at Great Britain’s secret Government Communications Headquarters, where his research is still classified. “I was quite successful there,” said Patterson, who solved two long-standing problems almost right away. But the British civil service was marked by overtones of class privilege, and it favored administrators over scientists. “It was not the money, it was the insult,” he said of leaving. “I was beyond furious. I’m still furious to this day.”

Leaping the Pond

In 1980, at the top-secret Center for Communications Research in Princeton, New Jersey, Patterson became valuable quickly, though citizenship took a while longer. Secret documents used to appear on his desk stamped “For US Eyes Only, and Nick Patterson.” Of his time at the center, he said, “I regard myself as a foot soldier in the Cold War,” one who helped make the world “fractionally safer.” When that chapter in world history closed, Patterson feared that his work was “not important anymore” and that his job might disappear. “I felt very insecure, actually.”

Living in these secret worlds had left him with plenty to say but no way of saying it. Patterson is an inveterate raconteur, but he can’t tell stories about his top-secret days: “I’d go to jail.”

In 1993, with the Cold War no longer hot and 20 years of experience in applied mathematics to his credit, Patterson joined Renaissance Technologies, a Manhattan-based hedge fund. In a Long Island office, he developed predictive mathematical models of the stock market. His new role meant that he had to learn the language of finance, but it also eventually erased, for life, any money worries he once had.

“I had a lot of experience building mathematical models for complicated data,” said Patterson. “The transition didn’t feel technically that hard.” To forecast the market, he employed the same statistical methods cryptographers use to break codes. During his eight years at the hedge fund, its assets shot from $200 million to $4 billion; the worst year returned 21 percent to investors after fees.

Taking On Biology

By 1999, Patterson was restless and eager for an intellectual challenge. He sat at his desk one day and asked himself, What’s the most interesting data in the world? “I decided it probably had to be something in biology,” he said. “People were beginning to learn how the cells work, were beginning to generate DNA sequences, and were grappling with consequential issues of human health that depended in part on big data. Really important, complicated problems.”

In 2001, he bought a house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be near a new job at the Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research, which in 2004 became the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Patterson joined the world of biology and big data in earnest. At the Broad, he is a senior computational biologist and a scholar of medical and population genetics. For 15 years, he has helped tell the story of human history through DNA. All this, and Patterson has never taken a single biology course. Ever buoyant and confident, he is unfazed by that. “As a child and to this day,” he said, “I’m a competitive person.”

During an early “sub-transition” into cancer bioinformatics, Patterson attended a lecture by David Reich, a young population geneticist captivated by the intersection of human history and biology. Patterson was immediately captivated too. This pursuit, after all, surely had a place for an experienced cryptographer ready to take on the big-data challenges of genetic code.

Since that day in the lecture hall, Reich and Patterson and others have probed DNA, using population genetics originally to look for genetically based disease risks but more recently to learn about human history. They found, for instance, that modern Eurasians share about 2 percent of their genetic makeup with Neanderthals, an admixture that most likely helped humans coming out of Africa adapt to unfamiliar Eurasian conditions.

Patterson deciphers genetics by using mathematical models, computer algorithms, and statistical pattern recognition—techniques he once used as a secret foot soldier during the Cold War. But this time he can speak up. “I’m working on ancient DNA data,” he said, “trying to get a story out of it.”

Corydon Ireland is a freelance writer based in Washington State. 

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