What secret chemical knowledge could be so important that it requires sophisticated encryption?
The setting was Amsterdam, 2019. A conference organized by the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry took place at the Embassy of the Free Mind, in a lecture hall opened by historical-fiction writer Dan Brown.
At the conference, Science History Institute postdoctoral researcher Megan Piorko presented a curious manuscript belonging to the English alchemist John Dee (1527–1608) and his son Arthur Dee (1579–1651). In the pre-modern world, alchemy was a means of understanding nature through ancient occult knowledge and chemical experimentation.
De’s chemistry was a cipher table within the manuscript, followed by the encrypted ciphertext under the title “Hermeticae Philosophie Medula” – or Marrow of the Hermetic Philosophy. The table will eventually become a valuable tool in decrypting the cipher, but can only be correctly interpreted once the hidden “key” is found.
It was during post-conference drinks in a dimly lit bar that Megan decided to investigate the mysterious alchemy’s cipher—with the help of her colleague, University of Graz postdoctoral researcher Sarah Lang.
recipe for elixir of life
Megan and Sarah shared their preliminary analysis on the History of Chemistry blog and presented the landmark discovery to cryptology experts around the world at the 2021 Histocrypt conference.
Based on the rest of the contents of the notebook, he believed that the ciphertext contained a recipe for the Philosopher’s Stone—an elixir that is believed to prolong the life of the owner and to produce gold from base metals. provides capability.
The mysterious cipher gained a lot of interest, and Sarah and Megan are soon inundated with emails that appear to be code-breakers. That’s when Richard Bean entered the picture. Less than a week after Histocrypt proceedings went live, Richard approached Lang and Piorko with exciting news: they had cracked the code.
Megan and Sarah’s initial hypothesis was confirmed; The encrypted ciphertext was actually a chemical recipe for the Philosopher’s Stone. Together, the trio began translating and analyzing the 177-word passage.
Read more: Why the ancient promise of alchemy is fulfilled in reading
the alchemist behind the cipher
But who first wrote this alchemist cipher and why encrypted it?
Chemical knowledge was shrouded in secrecy, as physicians believed it could only be understood by the true master.
Encrypting the most valuable trade secret, the Philosopher’s Stone, would have provided an additional layer of protection against chemical fraud and ignominy. Chemists spent their lives searching for this important substance, leading many to believe they had the key to successfully cracking the secret recipe.
Arthur Dee was an English alchemist and spent most of his career as royal physician to Tsar Michael I of Russia. He continued to add to the alchemy manuscript after his father’s death – and the cipher appears to be in Arthur’s handwriting.
We do not know whether Arthur’s father John Dee began writing in this manuscript, or when Arthur added the cipher tables and encrypted text he titled “The Marrow of Hermetic Philosophy”.
However, we do know that Arthur wrote another manuscript in 1634 titled arca arcanorum – or The Secret of Secrets – where he celebrates his chemical success with the Philosopher’s Stone, claiming that he discovered the real recipe.
they decorated arca arcanorum The metaphor depicts the process of alchemy transformation required for the Philosopher’s Stone, with a symbol copied from a medieval alchemical scroll.
What clues were found to decrypt the mysterious pith of the Hermetic Philosophy passage?
Adjacent to the encrypted text is a table used in a traditional style of cipher called a Bellaso/della Porta cipher – invented by Italian cryptologist Giovan Battista Bellaso in 1553, and written by Giambattista della Porta in 1563. had gone. This was the first clue.
The Latin title indicated that the text itself was also in Latin. This was confirmed by the lack of letters V and J in the cipher table, as V and J are interchangeable with U and I respectively in printed Latin text.
This was good news, as Richard had access to Latin statistical models from previous decryption projects. Armed with this information, he set out in search of patterns that would lead him to the cipher “key” – a word or phrase that could be used in conjunction with a cipher table to decipher the text.
Richard soon realized that the key had been included at the end of the text, which is unusual. It was also surprisingly long, composed of 45 characters—hard even for today’s computer-password standards. The trio later realized that the key was also written elsewhere in the manuscript, hidden in plain sight.
In keeping with the typical encryption practices of that period, Arthur Dee wrote the key on the back of the cipher table. Read it: Thus Ison Aurea Felici Portabis replaces Ulera Colcho, which means “Like a new Jason you will take the Golden Fleece away from the lucky Colchian”.
an ancient myth
The key is adapted from the last verse of an alchemical poem by Giovanni Aurelio Augurello titled chrysopoia (circa 1505), in which “chrysopoia” is also the Ancient Greek word for the art of making gold.
The poem is about the ancient Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, which was reinterpreted during the early modern period as an allegory of alchemy. In the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, the Argonauts travel to the land of Colchis (in modern Georgia) to retrieve the “Golden Fleece”. In a chemical context, wool symbolizes the philosopher’s stone.
The actual text of the Marrow of Hermetic Philosophy refers to the taking of an alchemical “egg” – not further described – from an ethnor, which is a type of furnace used for prolonged gentle heating.
Afterwards, instructions are given as to how long to wait until the various chemical phases (blackening, whitening, and red phase) begin. It says the final product — either a silver tincture or a gold-making elixir — will depend on the process being stopped.
If the instructions are followed correctly, the code-cracking reader promises to:
… then you will have a truly gold-making nectar, by whose grace all the miseries of poverty are dispelled and those who are afflicted by any disease will become healthy.
Contrary to what was long believed, chemical recipes are chemical processes that can be reproduced in modern laboratories. It is only towards the end (during the production of Philosopher’s Stone) that the recipe becomes too vague to reproduce – at least not without further explanation.
However, they sometimes produce blood-red glass (which was said to resemble a stone).
collection center tour
What can we learn from historical ciphers? Cryptology experts have just scratched the surface of early-to-modern encryption practices. Much of the secret alchemy’s knowledge has been uncovered since the time when it was thought possible through alchemy to make gold and expand the natural range of life.
The decryption of this 400-year-old cipher shows that we still have a lot to dig into. Who knows what other chemistry ciphers are waiting to be discovered in the depths of the archive?
Read more: Unclassified Cold War code-breaking manual holds lessons for solving ‘impossible’ puzzle