At the conference, Science History Institute postdoctoral researcher Megan Piorko presented a curious manuscript belonging to English alchemists John Dee (1527–1608) and his son Arthur Dee (1579–1651). In the pre-modern world, alchemy was a means to understand nature through ancient secret knowledge and chemical experiment.
Within Dee’s alchemical manuscript was a cipher table, followed by encrypted ciphertext under the heading “Hermeticae Philosophiae medulla”—or Marrow of the Hermetic Philosophy. The table would end up being a valuable tool in decrypting the cipher, but could only be interpreted correctly once the hidden “key” was found.
It was during post-conference drinks in a dimly lit bar that Megan decided to investigate the mysterious alchemical cipher—with the help of her colleague, University of Graz postdoctoral researcher Sarah Lang.