The Clue to the Labyrinth:

Francis Bacon and the Decryption of Nature


Peter Pesic


originally published in

Cryptologia, July 2000



image courtesy of Annette Olsen



KEYWORDS: Francis Bacon, Book of Nature, cryptanalysis, experimental science

ABSTRACT: Francis Bacon was among the first to argue that human ingenuity can discover the hidden laws of nature, under the metaphor of solving the encrypted Book of Nature. He was familiar with diplomatic uses of ciphers and presented a novel scheme for encryption; he also read ancient myths as coded messages. Despite the skepticism of his contemporaries, Bacon pointed to new possibilities of decryption both for human texts and the "alphabet of nature." His concept that nature requires interpretation and his inductive use of tables also parallel emergent cryptanalytic methods.

Modern scientists often describe the search for nature's hidden laws using the metaphor of solving a code.1 In this way of speaking, the laws of nature are the plaintext and natural phenomena are the cryptogram. As familiar as this figure of speech may be, the notion that nature is a kind of ciphered discourse is an important concept in the evolution of modern science. It represents a profound departure from Aristotelian science, which held that nature is fundamentally open to human knowledge, whereas modern science seeks the fundamental laws hidden behind the manifest phenomena. The metaphor of codebreaking helped to bring the new science to life, giving a much-needed articulation of the novel processes by which the hidden laws might be brought to light. In this story, Francis Bacon is a central figure. His striking formulations often hold the mirror up to science, revealing its most singular characteristics as they appear. Bacon inherited the notion that the world may be a kind of cryptogram, but he was the first to suggest that the cipher of nature is not limited by the bounds of natural human language, and that the plaintext comprises scientific laws. In contrast to some of his contemporaries, Bacon anticipated that human ingenuity would solve nature's cipher through a new approach to natural philosophy closely analogous to practices of decryption, an art that had then only recently been methodically formulated. His work not only reveals nature to be encrypted, but also outlines the detailed process that will, he expects, ultimately lead to the decryption of nature.

The concept that nature is a kind of intelligible text was long established by Bacon's time; Ernst Robert Curtius judged that it derived from the Latin Middle Ages.2 Bacon uses the image of the "Book of Nature" with the common understanding that nature and the Bible both bear divine messages that men can and should seek to understand. As he remarks, before us lie "two books or volumes to study if we will be secured from error; first the Scriptures revealing the will of God, and the creatures expressing his power; for that latter book will certify us that nothing which the first teacheth shall be thought impossible."3 However, the language in which the Book of Nature was written was hard to determine. The medieval treatments presume that this Book is somehow in a natural human language, though mysteriously expressed, since the creatures are not transparently "readable" as words or characters. The Bible offered the prime candidate for the archetypal language; the Hebrew scriptures themselves display three simple ways to disguise words by substitution that are among the earliest known ciphers.4

The few references to secret communications in ancient sources utilize only the simplest sorts of codes or secret writing.5 Curtius argues that Islamic-Spanish culture was the source for the later concept of cipher, drawing on the Arabic word sifr, meaning zero, the cipher par excellence.6 He also points to the late medieval fashion in France for devices, hieroglyphic images capable of representing without words. This fashion led to Italian emblems (impresas), whose pictorial part was called cifra in Spanish (the explanatory motto was called mote or letra, as if the plaintext behind the cipher).7 The celebrated polymath Leon Battista Alberti, the philosophers Desederius Erasmus, Angelo Poliziano, and Marsilio Ficino, among many others, turned their attention to these emblems, inventing new hieroglyphs on the model of the ancient Egyptians.8 The kabbalah indicated ways in which Hebrew letters could be considered formative elements of creation and also influenced the development of cryptology. For instance, the kabbalistic Sefer Yezirah (Book of Creation, ca. third-sixth centuries C. E.) seems to have been an important source for Ramon Llull's Ars inventiva veritatis, his "art of finding truth" through the symbolic use of letters to stand for philosophical concepts. Llull generated various propositions by using rotating wheels to give the combinations of letters indicating attendant pairs of concepts. As David Kahn has argued, Llull's wheels may have stimulated the elaboration of polyalphabetic substitution, complex ciphers in which each letter of plaintext is encrypted by a different cipher alphabet. Leon Battista Alberti's cipher disks show a telling resemblance to Llull's wheels.9

Complex cryptography emerged fully during the late middle ages and Renaissance. By Bacon's time, diplomatic correspondence was routinely enciphered.10 The intercepted dispatches of foreign powers were opened and, at least in Italy, France, and England, subjected to attempts at cryptanalysis. The first efflorescence of codebreaking seems to have been in Venice in the early years of the 16th century, its first great practitioner Giovanni Soro, whom the Vatican also consulted on difficult cases. Besides Soro, there were other masters of this new and mysterious art, such as Pirrho Musefili in Florence, Philibert Babou in France, the Argenti family in Rome, and Francois Viete in France. Those familiar with sophisticated ciphers began to associate them with the Book of Nature. In 1586 the French diplomat and cryptologist Blaise de Vigenere (1523-1596) asserted that "all nature is merely a cipher and a secret writing," as if this were already a familiar concept.11 However, Vigenere assumed that stars or plants encrypted their divine message in a natural human language, on the model of certain ciphers known to him that could hide a given text in musical scores, or in the relative positions of berries or stars (see Figure 1). He denied the possibility of solving the divine cipher through artifice; not only is it too difficult, but men are so corrupt that they cannot understand the purity of the divine message. Vigenere considered that only through the kabbalah did God permit his elect access to his cipher by providing them with the divine alphabet, though veiled in esoteric tradition only accessible to the pure in heart. Vigenere also held that codebreaking even of human ciphers was "a worthless cracking of the brain, and finally a quite inglorious labor."12 Despite his knowledge of the practical success of others, Vigenere was sure that codebreaking was futile in all but trivial cases.

Ironically, Vigenere's pessimism was being disproved as he wrote. During the years 1588-1591, his countryman FranCois Viete (1540-1603) solved the most secure ciphers then known and claimed that no enemy cipher could fool him. As I have argued in this journal, Viete may have been the first person to set the enterprise of decryption on a completely methodical footing by setting down in a secret memoir of 1603 what he called "infallible rules" that he considered sufficient to allow anyone to solve even a complex cipher.13 Though Viete hid his methods, he did not hesitate to publish certain damning decryptions. Those who sought the power of decryption may well have noted his accomplishments. Whether rediscovered or transmitted directly, in the years following his death Viete's methods became the standard techniques of the institutionalized Black Chambers that read intercepted enemy dispatches.l4 No less important is the close connection between Viete's methods of codebreaking and his parallel innovations in mathematics that led to his reputation as "the inventor of modern algebra."15

Bacon showed considerable awareness of these new advances in the art of secret writing and had direct contact with its practitioners. His brother Anthony was a crucial agent in Sir Francis Walsingham's secret service and spent most of his time on the Continent, "being a gentleman whose ability the world taketh knowledge of for matters of state specially foreign," as Walsingham put it (Bacon, Works, 8.107). Anthony was to have been in charge of a number of "correspondents" abroad, who acted as spies; there were at one time reportedly 53 such agents in place on the Continent. As a young man, Francis wrote coded letters to the Earl of Essex and was called on to break the codes of the queen's physician, Roderigo Lopez; as an old man, he made coded notations in his notebook.16 In 1586, enciphered letters between Mary Queen of Scots and her former page, Anthony Babington, were intercepted and cryptanalyzed, revealing a plot to assassinate Elizabeth, incite a Catholic uprising in England, and bring Mary to the English throne; Bacon's friend Thomas Phelippes, a noted codebreaker, had a central role in this story.17 The revelation of the exact texts of these letters gave evidence of Mary's complicity and led to her execution in 1587. Cryptanalysis also gave valuable evidence concerning Spanish designs on the English crown.

No one privy to these great events could miss the significance and utility of cryptography, and it surely must not have been lost on Francis Bacon, then twenty-six and at the beginning of his Parliamentary career. He had advised (queen Elizabeth in 1584 concerning her enemies at home and abroad, especially the Catholics (8.43-56). Bacon was also among those who spoke on the "Great Cause" of Mary's case as it was deliberated in Parliament (8.63). Through Anthony also he may have gained further insight into the use of ciphers in the more hidden affairs of state. Though Bacon constantly meditates on the reserved nature of things, he does so in order to disclose those secrets rightly, always excepting divine matters and the secrets of the human heart. In this he difFers significantly from the example of his royal master. King James was "held to be one of the most secretive princes in the world," as Sir Henry Wotton put it (1.314).18 Where James was secretive, Bacon had to unravel his hidden intent. Though Bacon always speaks of the king with great respect, one infers from his careful stratagems how much "deciphering" the king's continual dissimulation must have required.

Bacon's wary scrutiny also reflects the elaborate court masques that James patronized. Meant as intricate allegories of the king, his nation, and the whole cosmos harmoniously ordered together, these masques also became coded commentaries on the contemporary scene. In The Masque of Queens (1609), Ben Jonson explains why he did not spell out the identities of the characters:

For to have made themselves their own decipherers, and each one to have told upon their entrance what they were and whether they would, had been a most piteous hearing, and utterly unworthy any quality of a poem, wherein a writer should always trust somewhat to the capacity of the spectator, especially at these spectacles, where men, beside inquiring eyes, are understood to bring quick ears . . . (92-97)

The charm of such a poem resides in its refusal to decipher itself, calling rather on "inquiring eyes" to seek out the interplay between the coded discourse of the masque and the personage of the king. Bacon himself wrote speeches and emblems for various courtly entertainments. Sinuously elaborate, these rhetorical confections were occasions for virtuosity in compliments, richly informed by Bacon's keen-eyed deciphering of the political situation.

By "deciphering" Jonson meant guess-work through which the audience divines the meaning behind the symbolic characters. Bacon went much further with his decipherment. In De Augumentis Scientiarum (1623), Bacon locates ciphers at the center of his discussion of the "Art of Transmission," which treats the nature of discourse and writing, and, in general, "of producing and expressing to others those things which have been invented, judged, and laid up in the memory" (6.438-439). Bacon's interest goes beyond common letters and languages; he is interested in Chinese characters as well as in the sign language of the deaf. Chinese he describes as being formed of "real characters, not nominal; characters, I mean, which represent neither letters nor words, but things and notions" (6.439), though the connection "is adopted and agreed upon at pleasure." Further, "Hieroglyphics and Gestures have always some similitude to the thing signified, and are a kind of emblems," like the emblems he had written for courtly entertainment. Here Bacon anticipated the development of artificial languages based on "real characters," such as John Wilkins (1614-1672) later explored in An essay towards a real character and a philosophical language (1668).19

Hieroglyphics or gestures promise a deeper insight into things themselves, not merely by convention but by a direct revelation. Bacon is struck by the ancient Egyptians' use of hieroglyphics, "so that they seem to have been a kind of earlier born writing, and older than the very elements of letters, except perhaps among the Hebrews . . . for as hieroglyphics came before letters, so parable came before arguments" (6.698). Bacon directs us to these earliest strata of "transmission" in order to prepare us for the journey towards the future, "throwing light either upon antiquity or upon nature itself." Bacon gives examples of symbolic discourse which take the example of hieroglyph and gesture further. He uses a story from Herodotus in which one tyrant sends a cryptic message to another.

For when Periander, being consulted with how to preserve a tyranny, bade the messenger follow him, and went into his garden and topped the highest flowers, hinting at the cutting off of the nobility, he made use of a Hieroglyphics just as much as if he had drawn it on paper.20

The gestures bewilder the messenger who transmits them, but the cruel message is faithfully transmitted: kill the nobles. This "transitory Hieroglyph" fulfills the requirements of secret communication that Bacon lays down, "that they be easy and not laborious to write; that they be safe, and impossible to be deciphered; and lastly that they be, if possible, such as not to raise suspicion" (6.444). The last is not perfectly fulfilled, for the messenger wonders what the strange actions he is to transmit could possibly mean; the first two are effectively satisfied.

Noting the vast possibility of extending the transmission of what he calls the "Notes of Things" beyond ordinary writing Bacon marks the whole subject as "wanting" and neglected. He offers instead a cipher he devised "in Paris in my early youth." His celebrated biliteral cipher is the only discovery for which Bacon claims personal credit, not including the larger scheme of inquiry and interpretation that constitutes his new vision of science. However, Bacon's 19th century editor, James Spedding, pointed out that Bacon's cipher might have been drawn from similar biliteral ciphers described by Vigenere in his Traicte des Chiffres (Paris, 1586), which itself draws on earlier ciphers by Johannes Trithemius, Giovan Batista Belaso, and Giovanni Battista Porta.21 For instance, Vigenere gives a table with four different versions of the alphabet (see Figure 2) and also shows how two slightly varied letters (like o and o) can be used to encipher a text. On the other hand, Bacon dates his cipher to his stay in Paris (1576-1579), well before the appearance of Vigenere's book, so that Spedding's claim seems to violate chronology, though there remains Bacon's possible indebtedness to earlier cryptologists such as Porta.

Since Bacon claims to be an architect, rather than a bricklayer, his excursion into journeyman-work is significant. Bacon is proud of this work, "which I still think worthy of preservation . . . for it has the perfection of a cipher, which is to make anything signify anything [omnia per omnia]" (6.445).22 That is, his cipher will hide army plain text in any given cover text, given only that the cover text is at least five times longer than the plain. Bacon notes that code need not even use letters at all, but "any objects perceptive either to the eye or ear, provided only that those objects are capable of two differences; as by bells, trumpets, torches, gunshots, and the like." Thus this code is able to remove the letters from language and still be able to reconstitute its meaning upon transmission. This feature, which it shares with gestures and "real characters," renders it more fit to be a code of things rather than of words alone; it may be a step towards the symbolic code of nature, even though it is invented to serve human communication. This code is also binary, like the code widely used today for the machine language of computers.

Bacon embeds this code into a cover text because a stream of "differences," of gunshots or patterned bell ringing, might excite suspicion, or be too difficult to convey with sufficient accuracy. Using two slightly different alphabets, Bacon can then encode the plain text "FLY" into the cover text "Do not go till I come" (see Figure 3). His example relishes the code's ability to convey just the exact opposite of the "interior epistle" in its ostensible "exterior epistle," thus not only avoiding suspicion but even misleading the enemy by a writing which can mean exactly the opposite of what it seems to say.23

Bacon's publication of the biliteral cipher suggests a more keen and suspicious reading not only of any given text but of any system of "differences" such as Bacon says may be found in anything seen or heard - that is, anywhere in Nature. This larger goal eclipses the narrower one of improving diplomatic ciphers, for which concealing a new sort of cipher would be the logical step, rather than publishing it. Bacon gives an important sample of his decodings in his retelling of ancient fables. In his dedicatory letter to Of the Wisdom of the Ancients (1609), he relates that "parable has ever been a kind of ark, in which the most precious portions of the science were deposited" (6.689). The outward symbols are "a veil, as it were, of fables, which come in and occupy the middle region that separates what has perished," which he calls "the hidden depths of antiquity," "from what survives" (6.695). He remarks that "religion delights in such veils and shadows, and to take them away would be almost to interdict all communion between divinity and humanity," so deeply are they required for the communion of such diverse and unequal minds. He reminds us of the persistent use of parable in the gospels and notes that "they serve to disguise and veil the meaning, and they serve also to clear and throw light upon it." These parabolic codes both hide and reveal the true sense.

There is a certain simplicity in the code that Bacon discerns in the ancient parables, since he notes a telling resemblance between the plain text and its coded counterpart and often will point out to the reader the fitness of that relation. Indeed, among the most important information he draws from the parables has to do with the exact way the encoding is done. For instance, each detail of the figure of the Egyptian Sphinx has a precise analogy with Science.

In figure and aspect it is represented as many-shaped, in allusion to the immense variety of matter with which it deals. It is said to have the face and voice of a woman, in respect of its beauty and facility of utterance. Wings are added because the sciences and the discoveries of science spread and fly abroad in an instant . . . (6.756).

The sharp claws are an image of the agonizing fascination of scientific questions, which "strangely torment and worry the mind, pulling it first this way and then that, and fairly tearing it to pieces." Bacon goes on to treat many such parables; in the course of his decryption, he remarks that the fables calls attention to their own interpretation and are "a method of teaching." His writings teach his readers a new art of interpretation through the decoding of the ancients; he considers it a model to instruct the "sons of science" how to read the "rhetoric of nature." 24 Bacon also notes that the coded discourse of myths was meant originally "not as a device for shadowing and concealing the meaning, but as a method of making it understood; the understandings of men being then rude and impatient of all subtleties that did not address themselves to the sense" (6.698).

Bacon proposes, "passing by things obvious and obsolete and commonplace, to give some help towards the difficulties of life and the secrets of science." As with obscure ancient wisdom, nature's enigmatic messages are not perversely obscure; instead, we are too dull and impatient to solve them. If we follow Bacon's approach, we will treat natural phenomena as parables in need of decryption, for he considers that in experiment, even more than in the "wisdom of the ancients," lies crucial clues not only to understanding the mysterious laws of nature but also to unlocking their vast powers for human use.


Bacon did not presume that "the book of God's works" is written in any human language, even veiled by cipher.25 Bacon's crucial insight is that the methodical decryption of nature must grapple with a "language" that requires a whole new order of interpretation. Indeed, Bacon's yoking of interpretation with nature represents a great shift in understanding.26 For Aristotle, it is not nature that needs interpretation, but human language and judgment.27 For Bacon, "interpretation is the true and natural work of the mind when freed from impediments" (4.115). Those impediments consist both of the radical flaws in human understanding, beset with idols, but also of the labyrinthine intricacy of the world itself.

But the universe to the eye of the human understanding is framed like a labyrinth, presenting as it does on every side so many ambiguities of way, such deceitful resemblances of objects and signs, natures so irregular in their lines and so knotted and entangled. And then the way is still to be made by the uncertain light of the sense, sometimes shining out, sometimes clouded over, through the woods of experience and particulars; while those who offer themselves for guides are (as was said) themselves also puzzled, and increase the number of errors and wanderers. In circumstances so difficult neither the natural force of man's judgement nor even any accidental felicity offers any chance of success. No excellence of wit, no repetition of chance experiments, can overcome such difficulties as these. Our steps must be guided by a clue . . . (Preface to The Great Instauration; 4.18).

Bacon emphasizes that Daedalus, the artificer of the labyrinth, was "a man of the greatest genius but of very bad character, . . . banished for murdering a fellow pupil and rival" (6.734-736). Furthermore, Daedalus was a maker of "unlawful inventions" such as the wooden cow through which Pasiphae was able to satisfy her passion for a bull; from their union came the Minotaur. Bacon connects this with the ambiguity of the mechanical arts, which provide many useful devices "and yet out of the same fountain come instruments of lust, and also instruments of death" such as "the most exquisite poisons, also guns, and such like engines of destruction." Still, "the mechanical arts may be turned either way, and serve as well for the cure as for the hurt and have power for the most part to dissolve their own spell," for "the same man who devised the mazes of the labyrinth disclosed likewise the use of the clue," the archaic name for Ariadne's thread.

The labyrinth is also an image of the artifices which men make to subdue Nature to their use; the delusive turns of the maze are like the intricate variety, subtlety, and apparent likeness of one part to another which characterize "the more ingenious and exact mechanical inventions." Were it not for the clue which the artificer found, the machine would not work. When Theseus finds that clue he gains the power to "dissolve the spell." Bacon, the author of the fragmentary work The Clue to the Maze (Filium Labyrinthii) (ca. 1607; 3.503), presents himself as a new Theseus. In Plato's Phaedo, Socrates emerged as a new Theseus who delivers men from the fear of the Minotaur, of Death.28 In contrast, Bacon proposes to postpone and alleviate death though scientific means, not by teaching about the immortality of the soul but by scientific miracles that depend on secrets wrested from the labyrinth.

As their ancestor Daedalus built the labyrinth, Bacon calls on the new breed of scientist to breach that inmost sanctuary. In complex images, he calls them to pierce the veil of the temple of nature through their penetrating interpretations, "preparing a way into her inner chambers" (4.124), into the very center of the labyrinth. In Mark's gospel, the veil of the temple was rent by the death of the Savior; Bacon's metaphor draws more on the solemn entrance of the High Priest into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. The select priesthood of Salomon's House also is properly prepared so that it can penetrate the veil over nature through gaining a certain clue, a certain kind of interpretation. "We must use induction, true and legitimate induction, which is the very key of interpretation" (4.127). If these scientific priests can reach the center of the maze, they will find the "summary laws of nature" and can use them to grasp immense power for the benefit of humankind.

To find the guiding thread, Bacon envisaged a symbolic and schematic "alphabet of Nature" that would help flawed human understanding reach the "inner courts" of Nature.29 The key needed for interpretation is not a fixed structure like a skeleton key, but rather a "key" in the cryptographic sense: a flexible indicator that guides decryption by delineating the emergent structure of the cipher. The essential preparation for induction is the exhaustive preparation of "tables and arrangements of instances, in such a method and order that the understanding may be able to deal with them"; Bacon also organizes his "alphabet of Nature" in similar tables (5.210). He cannot give full examples without having essentially completed investigations to a degree he knows is far beyond his capacity, or perhaps beyond that of any solitary seeker; only the whole "machine" is adequate. However, in the Novum organism he does give an extended attempt at tables regarding the nature of heat, leading to results strikingly like the view of modern kinetic theory, in which heat is a form of atomic motion. What is important here are the tables themselves, manifold and detailed, going through many possible permutations of the instances in which are enumerated instances of "essence and presence" or "proximity where the nature of heat is absent" or "exclusion" or "degrees" of heat.

These tables resemble the tables used for encipherment and decipherment, though not for natural language but rather "things themselves."30 A cryptanalyst examines the possible correlations between the appearances of certain letters in the cipher text, singly or by pairs or triplets, arranging the results in tabular form. Read negatively, this table also shows which ciphered letters are not correlated with which others. Other tables note the order in which letters are correlated, preceding or following others. Likewise, Bacon's tables marshal parallel data for heat, citing all the known correlations, exclusions, and the degrees thereof (see Figure 4). The Latin word tabula was used extensively for tables of encipherment already in the first printed work on cryptography, Trithemius' Polygraphia (1518). From the earliest sources on, cryptography had relied on such tabular arrays to give the visible key for the encipherment. The word "tabula" or the French "tableau" are already common usage in Porta and Vigenere. By the time of the great Antoine Rossignol (1599-1682) there are distinguished "tables a chiffrer" from "tables a dechiffrer," indicating the greater systematization of deciphering as well as of enciphering. Given Bacon's detailed knowledge, it seems very likely that either he himself tried cryptanalysis, saw work in progress, or heard accounts of it. His posing of a new, more secure cipher shows that he was fully aware of the powers of expert cryptanalysts and, quite likely, of their detailed methods. At the very least, he seems to know of the tables of earlier cryptographers, for he sets out his own biliteral cipher in tabular form (4.445-6; see Figure 3).

The cryptanalyst's tables are a necessary starting point for systematic decryption. They permit certain deeply embedded linguistic features (such as the frequency of the letter "e" in English) to emerge and lead to solution. Bacon's tables proceed by the same logical categories of inclusion and exclusion, of quantity and correlation, that give the cryptanalyst's tables their revelatory power. Far from being undifferentiated lists of instances, his carefully structured tables are intended to be the key to full decryption. In the case of heat, Bacon tries a "First Vintage" or "Commencement of Interpretation." He tries to gather together "all the instances in which the thing itself is to be found" to give a first working hypothesis which he can then test and vex further (4.149).31 He also notes "Striking or Shining Instances," which give paradigmatic examples that are particularly forceful instances of the preliminary hypothesis. Such devices also are tools of the cryptanalyst, for whom the tables are only a beginning to the real work. The tables, after all, must be read, with all the interpretative acuity that word might invoke. Telling passages in the cipher text must be located and probed; hypotheses need to be formed and tested, even if finally discarded, in order that correct order emerge.

Bacon may well have noted the special acuity that marks out a gifted cryptanalyst from those who can only compile exhaustive tables. This important distinction certainly marks his vision of the social structure of science. Though he calls for a science which should be done "as if by machinery" (4.40), both cryptanalysis and the hunt for the inner forms of nature require art and imaginative leaps that go beyond merely pedestrian accumulation of correlations. In his scientific utopia, the New Atlantis, the master scientists are few, though they rely on many others for the immense work of collecting instances. However, only select minds can make the leap from the tables to the unifying insight that completes the work of discovery. Bacon gives images of these singular discoverers in his mythical tales, for the decipherers of the labyrinth and the solvers of the riddle are unique heroes, not to be confounded with their crews and companions, however invaluable. The key to the labyrinth is a clue ( filum), a delicate thread that must be handled with care, lest it break. The "machinery" of cryptology or of science must not obscure the central role of the exceptional talents on whom the whole enterprise depends. Otherwise, the truly new or unexpected will defeat a machine calibrated to past discoveries.

Accordingly, Bacon thought that true reading of the Book of Nature was reserved to those few who could follow the thread; the rest of humanity - including the wise king that rules his New Atlantis - must wait upon the disclosures of the scientists. Yet this implies a fateful removal of nature from common understanding. As Curtius observes, "The book of nature no longer legible? -- a revolutionary change had occurred, which penetrated the consciousness of the humblest."32 Moreover, even the scientists cannot anticipate what is to come; the great discoveries of the past had been quite unexpected. Genuinely new interpretations must "seem harsh and out of tune, much as the mysteries of faith do" (4.52). Bacon himself did not expect that mathematics would be so crucial; his ignorance of contemporary developments in mathematics limited his vision. When Galileo claimed the Book of Nature was written in "the language of mathematics" he was consciously correcting what he considered Bacon's greatest mistake. The fragmentary indications of Bacon's interest in symbolic language in his "alphabet of nature" make one suspect that, had he known of them, Bacon might have embraced the innovations of Viete and Descartes, which initiate mathematics as decryption.33 Even more fundamentally, though, Bacon discerned the fundamentally new approach to the Book of Nature that transformed the character both of the Book and finally of Nature itself.



I would like to thank David Kahn for his helpful criticisms.



Peter Pesic was educated at Harvard and Stanford, where he received a doctorate in physics. He has been a Tutor at St. John's College in Santa Fe NM since 1980. Also active as a pianist, he has been Musician-in-Residence there since 1984. He has written extensively on the relation between cryptology and modern science, as well as on Francis Bacon. These more scholarly publications are also presented to a broader audience in his new book, Labyrinth: A Search for the Hidden Meaning of Science (MIT Press, 2000).

Biographical Information: Peter Pesic received a bachelor's degree in physics from Harvard and a doctorate from Stanford, where he worked in the SLAC theory group and his advisor was Sidney Drell. He was a lecturer at Stanford from 1976-80 but has spent most of his career at St. John's College in Santa Fe, NM, where he has devoted much attention to shaping the study of physics from a historical and philosophical point of view within a "great books" curriculum. A concert pianist, he is also the Musician-in-Residence there.

He has edited a series of classic works in physics and mathematics for Dover Publications, providing introductions and detailed notes for reissues of Max Planck's Lectures in Theoretical Physics, James Clerk Maxwell's Theory of Heat and An Elementary Treatise on Electricity, and Carl Friedrich Gauss's Investigations on Curved Surfaces. His work in physics has mainly concerned the significance of indistinguishability in the foundations of quantum theory. He is a member of the History of Science Society and has published two papers in its journal¸ Isis.Overall, he has published over forty papers, many of them devoted to issues in the history and philosophy of science. These have led to his own four books, all published by MIT Press: Labyrinth: A Search for the Hidden Meaning of Science (2000), Seeing Double: Shared Identities in Physics, Philosophy, and Literature (2002, named as one of Choice Magazines Outstanding Academic Books for that year), Abel's Proof: An Essay on the Sources and Meaning of Mathematical Unsolvability (2003), and Sky in a Bottle (2005). His books have been translated into German, Italian, Japanese, and Norwegian. He is also a contributing editor of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, for which he has recently written essays concerning the nature of modern science and mathematics.

Statement: My training as a physicist led me to a deep interest in the history and philosophy of physics as I tried to grasp more deeply the essence and implications of its most novel insights. I think that presenting physics in this historical and philosophical light is the royal road to sharing our excitement with the broadest possible public because the study of its history emphasizes the truly striking and surprising aspects of physics as it emerges, tests itself, and takes new forms. I would like to help the executive committee find new ways to reach out to the public in this way. I have had much experience doing this at St. John's College and also in my books, which try to be both serious and engaging, both historical and physical.

I also feel that the study of the history of physics can have a deep interest for physicists themselves doing their own current work. Many physicists are curious about how theories, experiments, or insights really came about, both regarding the human stories and the interplay of fundamental ideas. For instance, the study of the history of quantum theory can lead to many surprising insights into what its founders thought they were doing as well as raising important questions about the fundamental presuppositions of that theory, questions that remain of enduring concern. Most of all, study of history as living reality can help us think more clearly and more penetratingly in our own research as we contemplate those moments when physicists before us struggled with great puzzles. These crucial dilemmas often fascinate students and young physicists in particular, who implicitly hope that they might learn from them something that would help them to make the transition from being textbook problem-solvers to original thinkers capable of finding new and powerful insights. I am very interested in helping the executive committee find new ways of using the history of physics that will engage our colleagues as well as the larger public.

Footnotes :

1.For instance, see Heinz Pagels, The Cosmic Code (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982) and Francois Jacob, The Logic of Life (New York: Pantheon, 1974), 30-32. Further implications are explored in my book Labyrinth: A Search for the Hidden Meaning of Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).

2.The classic account is given by Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, tr. Willard R. Track (New York: Pantheon Books, 1953), 319-326. See also Paolo Rossi, "La nuova scienza a il simbolo del `libro'," in his La cultura filosofica del Rinascimento italiano (Florence: Sansoni, 1961), 452-465, Massimo Luigi Bianchi, Signatura rerum. Segni, magia a conoscenza da Paracelso a Leibniz (Rome: Edizioni dell'Ateneo, 1987), Paula Findeln, "Empty Signs? Reading the Book of Nature in Renaissance Science," Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 21 (1990), 511-518, and James J. Bono, The Word of God and the Languages of Man (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), 1:3-84.

3.Citations from Bacon refer to volume and page number in The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding (London: Longmans and Co., 1857-1874 (reprint: New York: Garrett Press, 1968)); the first 7 volumes include the Works, and the succeeding volumes comprise The Letters and Life of Fancis Bacon. Where two citations are given of the same passage, the second refers to the Latin original. Here the citation is 3.221; for the "volume of Creation," see also 5.132.

4.Regarding these methods of "atbash," "albam," and "atbah" see the classic general history of cryptology, David Kahn, The Codebreakers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 78-80.

5.For the ancient and Islamic history of cryptography, see Kahn, Codebreakers, 71-99. Plutarch notes that "it is thought that (Caesar] was the first who contrived means for communicating with his friends by cipher ..." (Parallel Lives: Caesar).

6.Curtius, European Literature, 345-347.

7.Regarding emblems see also Mario Praz, Studies in Seventeenth- Century Imagery (London: Warburg Institute, 1939) and William B. Ashworth, Jr., "Natural History and the Emblematic World View," in Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution, ed. David C. Lindberg and Robert S. Westman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 303-332

8.Alberti also wrote the earliest western exposition of cryptography; see Kahn, Codebreakers, 125-130. For devices and hieroglyphics, see William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature (Princeton; Princeton University Press, 1994), K. Giehow, "Die Hieroglyphenkunde des Humanismus in der Allegorie der Renaissance," Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhochesten Kaiserhauses, 32 (1915), 1-218, R. Wittkower, "Hieroglyphics in the Early Renaissance" in his Allegory and the Migration of Symbols (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1977), 114-128.

9.See David Kahn, "On the Origin of Polyalphabetic Substitution," Isis, 71 (1980), 122-127, reprinted in Kahn on Codes (New York: Macmillan, 1983), 56-61. On the Sefer Yezirah, see Gershom G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, tr. Ralph Manheim (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 166-169.

10.For an overview of the development of cryptology and diplomacy in early modern Europe, see Kahn, Codebreakers, 106-156 (through Antoine Rossignol).

11.Balaise de Vigenere, Traicte des Chiffries (Paris: Abel l'Angelier, 1586), ff. 53r-54v; see also Kahn, Code-- breakers, 145-148 and Wayne Shumaker, "Johannes Trithemius and Cryptography," in Renaissance Curiosa (Binghamton: Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies, 1982), 91-131 at 123-126. I have discussed Vigenere's arguments in detail in "Secrets, Symbols, and Systems: Parallels between Cryptanalysis and Algebra, 1580-1700," Isis, 88 (1997), 674-692. Paracelsus also held that nature is "a vast complex of signs and a ciphered discourse," according to Bianchi, Signatura serum, 70.

12.Here he agrees with the earlier opinion of Giovanni Battista Porta, De Furtivi Literarum Nods (Naples: Apud loan. Mariam Scotum, 1563), Book III. For Porta's cryptological work, see Kahn, Codebreakers, 137-143 and Shumaker, "Johannes Trithemius," 114-123.

13.See my essay "Frangois Viete, Father of Modern Cryptanalysis - Two New Manuscripts," Cryptologia, 21 (1997), 1-29.

14.For the career of Rossignol and the era of the Black Chambers see Kahn, Codebreakers, 157-165.

15.See "Secrets, Symbols, and Systems," 681-685.

16.See Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart, Hostage to Fortune: The Troubled Life of Fancis Bacon (New York: Hill and Wang, 1999), 148-152, 158, 466.

17.There is an account of Francis' relations with Anthony, the Earl of Essex, and Phelippes in John Michael Archer, Sovereignty and Intelligence (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), 124-131, who calls Francis "Essex's principal strategist and decoder in the earl's competition with Robert Cecil for the queen's attention and gratitude" (121) and notes that "Francis handled the correspondence while Anthony acted as chief decoder" for Essex's ring of spies (126). See also Jardine and Stewart, Hostage to Fortune, 55-56.

18.Even before he ascended the English throne in 1602, James's opinions had achieved wide dissemination through the publication of his Basilikon Dorms (first printed in 1598), a treatise on kingship (originally intended to be secret) addressed to his eldest son Henry, himself noted at age sixteen by Lord Cornwallis as "grave beyond his years, reserved and secret." See Jonathan Goldberg, James 1 and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 55-112. Bacon wrote a History of the Reign of King Henry Vll, whom he described as a great and good king, yet "infinitely suspicious . . . sad, serious, and full of thoughts and secret observations" (6.242-243); see Archer, Sovereignty and Intelligence, 133-139.

l9.See the extensive discussion in Bono, Word of God and also Gerhard F. Strasser, Lingua Universalis: Kryptologie and Theorie der Universalsprachen im 16. and 17. Jahrhundert (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1988).

20.This is Bacon's version (6.440); in Herodotus, Thrasybulus sends the messenger to Periander (History 5.92), not vice versa, as Bacon has it.

21.For Spedding's detailed argument, see Bacon, Works, 1.841-4; the references to Vigenere's Traicte deaChin are ff. 35r, 37v, 199-202, 240-244. It is unclear which of the many observations Bacon reported in his Sylva sylvarum (only published after his death in 1626) he claimed as original; many were drawn from other sources, notably Porta's Natural magick (1563).

22. John C. Briggs has given a brilliant discussion of Bacon's conception of codes in Francis Bacon and the Rhetoric of Nature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 9, 18, 25-29; I am indebted to this outstanding work on many points, and also to his discussion of codes in his essay on "Bacon's science and religion' in The Cambridge Companion to Bacon, ed. Markku Peltonen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 172-199, at 185-192.

23.To emphasize this contrast, Bacon gives another, more extended, example in which a rambling paragraph from Cicero encodes a desperate Spartan dispatch. Here Bacon recasts history, since Xenophon mentions that this message was intercepted by the Athenians, who solved the Spartans' simple encryption (Hellenica 1.1.23). The implication is that if the Spartans' message had been sent in Bacon's cipher, it would have escaped detection.

24.This parallelism is examined by Briggs, Francis Bacon, passim.

25.Bacon, Works, 4.261. See Briggs,Francis Bacon 13-40 and Bono, Word of God, 1:199-246, who asserts at 218 that for Bacon "there is an unbridgeable divide between the verbum Dei and the languages of man." Paolo Rossi has emphasized that "Bacon also did away with the idea of the world as the 'living image' of God . . . . Man is not at the centre of secret correspondences; the universe is not a web of symbols that correspond to divine archetypes; scientific research in no way resembles an incommunicable and mystical experience"; Paolo Rossi, "Hermeticism, Rationality, and the Scientific Revolution," in Reason, Experiment, and Mysticism, ed. M. L. Righini Bonelli and William R. Shea (New York: Science History Publications, 1975), 247-273 at 258-259.

26.Note the title of a fragmentary draft "Of the Interpretation of Nature" (1603; 3.518-520), another fragment entitled "Valerius Terminus of the Interpretation of Nature, with the annotations of Hermes Stella" (1603; 3.215-252), and then finally the published Novum Organism, sive Indicia de Interpretatione Naturae (The New Organon, or True Directions Concerning the Interpretation of Nature) (1620; 1.134).

27.In On Interpretation Aristotle uses the word "interpretation" to refer to the fundamental process of communication in which affections of the soul are represented by spoken or written symbols.

28.Jacob Klein, Lectures and Essays (Annapolis: St. John's College Press, 1985), 375-393.

29.Bacon, Works, 4.439, 5.132-133. Bacon's Abecedarium Naturae (5.208-211) gives lists of Greek letters which express in symbolic form "a kind of dictionary, a systematic account, an exhaustive catalogue of the `letters', primary `natures' and motions, knowledge of which would enable one to read the language of nature," as Graham Regis notes in "Bacon's Philosophy: Some New Sources with Special Reference to the Abecedarium novum naturae," in Francis Bacon, ed. Marts Fattori (Rome: Edizioni dell'Ateneo, 1984), 223-244. Regis also argues persuasively that "the scope of Bacon's mathematical concerns was far wider than is usually granted," including the possibility that he knew of Viete's work through his friend Nathaniel Torporley, who had been Viete's amanuensis; see Graham Reel, "Mathematics and Francis Bacon's Natural Philosophy," Revue internationale de philosophie, 40 (1986), 399-426.

30.See Bacon's Filium Labyrinthii (3.503); for his tables see 4.149 ff. A. Robinet suggests that Ramus anticipated these tables in "Leibniz face & Bacon," Les etudes philosophiques, 3 (1985), 375-386 at 377.

31.Regarding the character of this "vexation" see my "Wrestling with Proteus: Francis Bacon and the `lbrture' of Nature," leis, 90 (1999), 81-94.

32.Curtius, European Literature, 324.

33.Galileo read that Book as composed of geometrical figures in the ancient manner. By interpreting those mathematical characters as symbolic cryptograms, Descartes discerned a new path to the disclosure of natural secrets. See Carl B. Boyer, "Galileo's place in the history of mathematics" in Galileo Man of Science, ed. Ernan McMullin (New York: Basic Books, 1967), 232-255 at 240-242. Regarding Descartes' and Mersenne's view of the Book of Nature, see Bono, Word of God,1:247-249, 256-271 and Peter Dear, Mersenne and the Learning of the Schools (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), 175-200. Ernst Cassirer comments on the intellectual preparation to interpret the 'cipher writing' of nature" in The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 118.


Biographical Information: Peter Pesic received a bachelor's degree in physics from Harvard and a doctorate from Stanford, where he worked in the SLAC theory group and his advisor was Sidney Drell. He was a lecturer at Stanford from 1976-80 but has spent most of his career at St. John's College in Santa Fe, NM, where he has devoted much attention to shaping the study of physics from a historical and philosophical point of view within a "great books" curriculum. A concert pianist, he is also the Musician-in-Residence there.

He has edited a series of classic works in physics and mathematics for Dover Publications, providing introductions and detailed notes for reissues of Max Planck's Lectures in Theoretical Physics, James Clerk Maxwell's Theory of Heat and An Elementary Treatise on Electricity, and Carl Friedrich Gauss's Investigations on Curved Surfaces. His work in physics has mainly concerned the significance of indistinguishability in the foundations of quantum theory. He is a member of the History of Science Society and has published two papers in its journal¸ Isis.Overall, he has published over forty papers, many of them devoted to issues in the history and philosophy of science. These have led to his own four books, all published by MIT Press: Labyrinth: A Search for the Hidden Meaning of Science (2000), Seeing Double: Shared Identities in Physics, Philosophy, and Literature (2002, named as one of Choice Magazines Outstanding Academic Books for that year), Abel's Proof: An Essay on the Sources and Meaning of Mathematical Unsolvability (2003), and Sky in a Bottle (2005). His books have been translated into German, Italian, Japanese, and Norwegian. He is also a contributing editor of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, for which he has recently written essays concerning the nature of modern science and mathematics.

Peter Pesic

ADDRESS: St. John's College, Santa Fe, NM 87501-4599 USA

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