What secret alchemical data may very well be so vital it required subtle encryption?
The setting was Amsterdam, 2019. A convention organised by the Society for the Historical past of Alchemy and Chemistry had simply concluded on the Embassy of the Free Thoughts, in a lecture corridor opened by historical-fiction creator Dan Brown.
On the convention, Science Historical past Institute Postdoctoral Researcher Megan Piorko offered a curious manuscript belonging to English alchemists John Dee (1527–1608) and his son Arthur Dee (1579–1651). Within the pre-modern world, alchemy was a way to grasp nature by means of historic secret data and chemical experiment.
Inside Dee’s alchemical manuscript was a cipher desk, adopted by encrypted ciphertext beneath the heading “Hermeticae Philosophiae medulla” — or Marrow of the Airtight Philosophy. The desk would find yourself being a priceless instrument in decrypting the cipher, however may solely be interpreted accurately as soon as the hidden “key” was discovered.
It was throughout post-conference drinks in a dimly lit bar that Megan determined to research the mysterious alchemical cipher — with the assistance of her colleague, College of Graz Postdoctoral Researcher Sarah Lang.
A recipe for the elixir of life
Megan and Sarah shared their preliminary evaluation on a historical past of chemistry weblog and offered the historic discovery to cryptology specialists from world wide on the 2021 HistoCrypt convention.
Based mostly on the remainder of the pocket book’s contents, they believed the ciphertext contained a recipe for the fabled Philosophers’ Stone — an elixir that supposedly prolongs the proprietor’s life and grants the power to provide gold from base metals.
The mysterious cipher acquired a lot curiosity, and Sarah and Megan had been quickly inundated with emails from would-be code-breakers. That’s when Richard Bean entered the image. Lower than per week after the HistoCrypt proceedings went dwell, Richard contacted Lang and Piorko with thrilling information: he’d cracked the code.
Megan and Sarah’s preliminary speculation was confirmed; the encrypted ciphertext was certainly an alchemical recipe for the Philosophers’ Stone. Collectively, the trio started to translate and analyse the 177-word passage.
Why the traditional promise of alchemy is fulfilled in studying
The alchemist behind the cipher
However who wrote this alchemical cipher within the first place, and why encrypt it?
Alchemical data was shrouded in secrecy, as practitioners believed it may solely be understood by true adepts.
Encrypting probably the most priceless commerce secret, the Philosophers’ Stone, would have supplied an added layer of safety towards alchemical fraud and the unenlightened. Alchemists spent their lives looking for this important substance, with many believing they’d the important thing to efficiently unlocking the key recipe.
Arthur Dee was an English alchemist and spent most of his profession as royal doctor to Tsar Michael I of Russia. He continued so as to add to the alchemical manuscript after his father’s demise — and the cipher seems to be in Arthur’s handwriting.
We don’t know the precise date John Dee, Arthur’s father, began writing on this manuscript, or when Arthur added the cipher desk and encrypted textual content he titled “The Marrow of Airtight Philosophy”.
Nonetheless, we do know Arthur wrote one other manuscript in 1634 titled Arca Arcanorum — or Secret of Secrets and techniques — the place he celebrates his alchemical success with the Philosophers’ Stone, claiming he found the true recipe.
He adorned Arca Arcanorum with an emblem copied from a medieval alchemical scroll, illustrating the allegorical means of alchemical transmutation essential for the Philosophers’ Stone.
© British Library Board, Writer supplied (no reuse)
Cracking the code
What clues led to decrypting the mysterious Marrow of the Airtight Philosophy passage?
Adjoining to the encrypted textual content is a desk resembling one utilized in a standard model of cipher referred to as a Bellaso/Della Porta cipher — invented in 1553 by Italian cryptologist Giovan Battista Bellaso, and written about in 1563 by Giambattista della Porta. This was the primary clue.
The Latin title indicated the textual content itself was additionally in Latin. This was corroborated by the shortage of letters V and J within the cipher desk, as V and J are interchangeable with U and I, respectively, in printed Latin textual content.
This was excellent news, as Richard had entry to Latin statistical fashions from earlier decryption initiatives. Armed with this data, he set off in quest of patterns that will lead him to the cipher “key” — a phrase or phrase that may very well be used along side the cipher desk to decipher the textual content.
Richard quickly realised the important thing was included on the finish of the textual content, which is uncommon. It was surprisingly lengthy too, made up of 45 letters — arduous even for right now’s computer-password requirements. The trio would later realise the important thing was additionally written elsewhere within the manuscript, hidden in plain sight.
In step with the everyday encryption practices of the interval, Arthur Dee had written the important thing on the again of the cipher desk. It learn: sic alter iason aurea felici portabis uellera colcho, that means “like a brand new Jason you’ll carry the Golden Fleece away from the fortunate Colchian”.
An historic delusion
This secret is tailored from the final verses of an alchemical poem by Giovanni Aurelio Augurello titled Chrysopoeia (circa 1505), with “chrysopoeia” additionally being the traditional Greek phrase for the artwork of gold-making.
The poem is concerning the historic Greek delusion of Jason and the Argonauts, which was reinterpreted through the early fashionable interval as an allegory for alchemy. Within the delusion of Jason and the Argonauts, the Argonauts sail to the land of Colchis (in modern-day Georgia) to retrieve the “Golden Fleece”. In an alchemical context, the fleece is an emblem for the Philosophers’ Stone.
The precise textual content of the Marrow of the Airtight Philosophy mentions taking an alchemical “egg” — not additional described — from an athanor, which is a sort of furnace used for mild heating over an extended time period.
Afterwards, directions are given for a way lengthy to attend till the completely different alchemical phases ensue (the blackening, whitening and the purple part). It says the top product — both a silver tincture or the gold-making elixir — will depend upon when the method is stopped.
If the instructions are adopted accurately, the code-cracking reader is promised:
… then you’ll have a very gold-making elixir by whose benevolence all of the distress of poverty is put to flight and those that undergo from any sickness can be restored to well being.
Opposite to what was believed for a very long time, alchemical recipes do comprise chemical processes which may be reproduced in fashionable laboratories. It’s solely in the direction of the top (through the manufacturing of the Philosophers’ Stone) that the recipe turns into too imprecise to breed — a minimum of not with out additional interpretation.
Nonetheless, they do generally produce a blood-red glass (which is what the stone was mentioned to appear to be).
Journey to the centre of the archive
What can we study from historic ciphers? Cryptology specialists have simply scratched the floor of early-modern encryption practices. A lot secret alchemical data stays uncovered from a time when making gold and increasing the pure restrict of life was believed potential by means of alchemy.
The decryption of this 400-year-old cipher suggests we’ve got a lot floor to dig by means of but. Who is aware of what different alchemical ciphers are ready to be found within the depths of the archive?
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