June 15, 2017

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There was a time, in the 1970s and ’80s, when Martin Hellman (TANDON ’66) fell afoul of the National Security Agency (NSA).

Martin Hellman

Hellman was a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University working with students Whitfield Diffie and Ralph Merkle. Their work was in cryptography, which the NSA feared might compromise its intelligence operations.

“Even though I had been very careful not to do anything in the classified sphere, by publishing my papers in international journals, they maintained that I was exporting implements of war,” Hellman says.

“There were threats that I might go to jail. My wife was happy when it made big news. She said, ‘Now if something happens to you, there will be an investigation at least.’ I don’t know how serious the threats were.”

Hellman never did end up in jail, and the results of his relentless pursuit was Diffie-Hellman-Merkle public-key cryptography, which today, in revised form, is the predominant method of securing Internet communications. It safeguards electronic banking and online credit card purchases, as well as $5 trillion per day in foreign exchange transactions.

Hellman’s breakthrough not only revolutionized cryptography, it also led to a 2015 A. M. Turing Award, widely considered the Nobel Prize of computer science.

“All of my colleagues told me that I was crazy or foolish to work on cryptography,” Hellman says. “The NSA had a decades head start and a multibilliondollar- per-year budget. ‘How can you hope to discover something they don’t already know? And if you do something good, they’ll classify it.’”

“But in hindsight, it was very wise to do something so foolish.”


As he looks back on his journey, Hellman says he was “either arrogant or courageous,” but today, he’s deeply introspective. “I fortunately did the right thing. But if it had been the wrong thing, I could have fooled myself that same way.”

That realization led Hellman to consider how unconscious motivations— our dark or “shadow” side—can lead to conflicts. The idea crystallized when he and his wife, Dorothie, who were on the brink of divorce, began to dig deep and ultimately transformed their relationship. “Now, almost 37 years later, we’re madly in love again,” he says.

Believing that such exploration can resolve conflicts both personal and international, the Hellmans decided to share their experiences in their new book, A New Map for Relationships: Creating True Love at Home and Peaceon the Planet (New Map Publishing). “The things we had to learn to recover true love are the same things that the nations of the world need to do to avoid nuclear holocaust and global warming,” says Hellman, a longtime nuclear nonproliferation advocate. “Those things really require the same shift in thinking.”

This article was written by Kimberly Olson for the Spring 2017 Alumni Magazine.