In the last week, BoingBoing caught my eye by reporting how University of Arizona researchers have announced a new piece of information discovered about the Voynich Manuscript. For those who don’t know, the Voynich Manuscript is one of the world’s biggest mysteries and most-interesting books of all time. Trick is, no one can read it.
The book was discovered in modern times (1912) by a rare books dealier, Wilfrid Voynich, and later after his death it was donated to Yale University (1969).
The book consists of a number of pages with writing and some illustrations divided into sections covering subjects which appear to include Astrology, Herbology, Pharmaceutical, Cosmology, and Medicine. The writing resembles Latinate scripts at first glance, but one quickly realizes that the letters don’t conform to known languages, and even the sequences of words formed by the letters are very odd and do not seem to conform to familiar language patterns. The weird illustrations, with sort of psychedelic combinations of people, plants and tubes, tubs and pipes are puzzling. Are they illustrating biological processes of movements of biles and humors? Are they explaining some weird machinery or alchemical process? The other diagrams of stars and cosmologies in combination make it even stranger:
Over the course of years, the manuscript has been analyzed by many linguists, cryptographers, experts and other hobbyists with no one satisfactorily breaking the code or language that may be involved.
I’ve written before about the Voynich Manuscript, and it continues to interest me for a number of reasons. Not only have I studied the arts of calligraphy and manuscript illumination (in the distant past!), and I’ve been involved with rare books one way or another, but I’ve also played around with writing programs to analyze the writing, just as many others have done. For many of us, the manuscript appears to be a problem that’s perfect for natural language processing, a discipline which closely parallels the discipline of Information Retrieval and development of search engines. Google almost certainly has a number of people on staff who’ve also toyed around with using code to dissect the Voynich, and they might even have some people devoting their 20% time to trying to actually solve the mystery.
The University of Arizona researchers carbon-dated tiny scraps of the manuscript, and have found that it was written around the early 15th century, in the Renaissance time period. While this still doesn’t solve the mystery of the meaning of the manuscript, it does help to fill in some of the gaps in what we know about it overall, which helps to exclude some theories on who may’ve been responsible for it (some characters have been suggested over time, including Roger Bacon, the famous court magician John Dee, his partner Edward Kelley, and even Voynich himself, cast as a sort of forgery artist).