(Roughly) Daily

“The sciences of cryptography and mathematics are very elegant, pure sciences. I found that the ends for which these pure sciences are used are less elegant.”*…

Mary, Queen of Scots wrote 57 encrypted messages during her captivity in England; until recently, all but 7 of them were believed lost. Meilan Solly tells the tale of their discovery and decryption…

Over the course of her 19 years in captivity, Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote thousands of letters to ambassadors, government officials, fellow monarchs and conspirators alike. Most of these missives had the same underlying goal: securing the deposed Scottish queen’s freedom. After losing her throne in 1567, Mary had fled to England, hoping to find refuge at her cousin Elizabeth I’s court. (Mary’s paternal grandmother, Margaret Tudor, was the sister of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII.) Instead, the English queen imprisoned Mary, keeping her under house arrest for nearly two decades before ordering her execution in 1587.

Mary’s letters have long fascinated scholars and the public, providing a glimpse into her relentless efforts to secure her release. But the former queen’s correspondence often raises more questions than it answers, in part because Mary took extensive steps to hide her messages from the prying eyes of Elizabeth’s spies. In addition to folding the pages with a technique known as letterlocking, she employed ciphers and codes of varying complexity.

More than 400 years after Mary’s death, a chance discovery by a trio of code breakers is offering new insights into the queen’s final years. As the researchers write in the journal Cryptologia, they originally decided to examine a cache of coded notes housed at the National Library of France as part of a broader push to “locate, digitize, transcribe, decipher and analyze” historic ciphers. Those pages turned out to be 57 of Mary’s encrypted letters, the majority of which were sent to Michel de Castelnau, the French ambassador to England, between 1578 and 1584. All but seven were previously thought to be lost…

What they found and how they made sense of it: “Code Breakers Discover—and Decipher—Long-Lost Letters by Mary, Queen of Scots,” from @meilansolly in @SmithsonianMag.

Jim Sanborn, the sculptor who created the encrypted Kryptos sculpture at CIA headquarters

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As we crack codes, we might spare a thought for a rough contemporary of Mary’s, a man who refused to communicate in code: Giordano Bruno. A Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer whose concept of the infinite universe expanded on Copernicus’s model, he was the first European to understand the universe as a continuum where the stars we see at night are identical in nature to the Sun.  Bruno’s views were considered dangerously heretical by the (Roman) Inquisition, which imprisoned him in 1592; after eight years of refusals to recant, on this date in 1600, he was burned at the stake.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 17, 2023 at 1:00 am

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