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LEIGH: What a Bitcoin Researcher Says About Lightning

Chaincode Labs researcher Clara Shikhelman has been studying mathematics in university since she was 14 years old. Now, as the bitcoin company’s newest post-doctoral fellow, she is exploring ways to optimize the Lightning Network.

July 12, 2020

In this audio interview, CoinDesk’s Leigh Cuen and Chaincode Labs researcher Clara Shikhelman talk about bitcoin and what attracted them to it.

This episode is sponsored by Bitstamp and

As a cofounder of the Israeli Women in Mathematics Association, Shikhelman has been researching complex math problems for nearly a decade. But she said bitcoin offers especially interesting puzzles to solve because this technology may have the potential to change the world. She’s one of many young researchers who identify with the cypherpunk movement.

“There are a lot of people like me, their main thing is academic,” Shikhelman said. “They are not the classic cypherpunk people, but …[t]hey believe in privacy, in political change.”

Until recently, most people associated with the cypherpunk movement were technologists in the 1980s and 1990s who circulated mailing lists about encryption and other privacy tech topics. The term was created by feminist hackitvist Judith Milhon, although it is widely associated with software engineers such as bitcoin veteran Adam Back. Many of the original cypherpunks are still active in the cryptocurrency space today. However, they’ve also inspired a new generation of self-identified cypherpunks with different skills now also exploring the subculture’s proverb that “cypherpunks build things.”

In Shikhelman’s case, she’s focused on mathematical research to make bitcoin’s Lightning Network reliable. Like her predecessors, she shares a love of cypherpunk literature, such as novels by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson. These fantasy worlds help her think outside the box and apply math to ideas with cypherpunk potential, meaning the potential to use privacy tech to promote social change. Such solutions-oriented research is a fundamental part of building technology, just as valuable as adding open source code to a Github repo.

Lightning-fast cypherpunks

“Let’s talk big. Let’s think huge. Let’s talk about thousands of years in the future, changing humanity,” Shikhelman said.

In order to build privacy into the bitcoin ecosystem, technologists first must understand the mathematical aspects of the system. Just as safety equipment works best when it fits the person (an oversized helmet can be more dangerous than none at all), software works best when designed with both the details and holistic value flow in mind.

“Lightning will need more than just onion routing for good privacy guarantees going forward,” said cypherpunk journalist Janine Roemer, who writes a newsletter about bitcoin privacy tech. “Lightning is one of many adaptations that will expand Bitcoin's ability to carry larger and larger portions of the global economy.”

Similar to Shikhelman, Roemer is a researcher who views herself as part of the broader cypherpunk movement.

“A lowercase ‘c’ cypherpunk,” she joked, acknowledging she was never involved with the movement’s founding fathers.

This social movement is not preoccupied with overthrowing or altering governments, in stark contrast with Bitcoin Twitter’s anarchist undertones. Instead, Roemer said, rather than seizing power the movement is focused on “working to make things un-take-over-able." In short, unseizable assets, self-sovereign data and other types of independence in a digital world.

“I prefer the term ‘informational self-determination,’ which is used in the German constitution,” Roemer said.

As for bitcoin, Shikhelman described Bitcoin Core as “pretty much stable and running,” meaning her focus has now turned to privacy-centric usability for the Lightning Network. With regards to bitcoin’s reliability so far, Roemer agreed.

“I hope bitcoin will become/keep being something that survives under adversity, and gives the people who use it at least enough privacy that they can escape from whatever preys on them. Whether that's the state, banks, corporations, abusive family or partners,” Roemer concluded.