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posted by Fnord666 on Tuesday September 12, @05:17PM   Printer-friendly
from the back-to-the-drawing-board dept.

So much for that Voynich manuscript "solution"

Last week, a history researcher and television writer named Nicholas Gibbs published a long article in the Times Literary Supplement about how he'd cracked the code on the mysterious Voynich Manuscript. Unfortunately, say experts, his analysis was a mix of stuff we already knew and stuff he couldn't possibly prove.

As soon as Gibbs' article hit the Internet, news about it spread rapidly through social media (we covered it at Ars too), arousing the skepticism of cipher geeks and scholars alike. As Harvard's Houghton Library curator of early modern books John Overholt put it on Twitter, "We're not buying this Voynich thing, right?" Medievalist Kate Wiles, an editor at History Today, replied, "I've yet to see a medievalist who does. Personally I object to his interpretation of abbreviations."

The weirdly-illustrated 15th century book has been the subject of speculation and conspiracy theories since its discovery in 1912. In his article, Gibbs claimed that he'd figured out the Voynich Manuscript was a women's health manual whose odd script was actually just a bunch of Latin abbreviations. He provided two lines of translation from the text to "prove" his point.

However, this isn't sitting well with people who actually read medieval Latin. Medieval Academy of America director Lisa Fagin Davis told The Atlantic's Sarah Zhang, "They're not grammatically correct. It doesn't result in Latin that makes sense." She added, "Frankly I'm a little surprised the TLS published it...If they had simply sent to it to the Beinecke Library, they would have rebutted it in a heartbeat."

Voynich manuscript.

Previously: Voynich Manuscript Partially Decoded


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Voynich Manuscript Partially Decoded 33 comments

Thexalon writes:

"University of Bedfordshire professor and applied linguist Stephen Bax has decoded 10 words of the baffling Voynich Manuscript. He focused on proper names that would match the accompanying drawings, which allowed him to find similar drawings in other books of the period."

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  • (Score: -1, Spam) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 12, @05:18PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 12, @05:18PM (#566857)

    We back. We black. Dick Niggers.

    Never fuckin no old pussy.

    We fuck lotta lotta young pussy.

    Dick Niggers gonna pull out and write "Dick Niggers" in black hot cum across yo snatch.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 12, @05:47PM (11 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 12, @05:47PM (#566874)

    Maybe I'm stretching here - but couldn't the Voynich manuscript be written in some sort of dog Latin? There doesn't seem to be much evidence that the manuscript actually has been cracked, but that seems to me a bad argument against it.

    • (Score: 5, Interesting) by bob_super on Tuesday September 12, @06:12PM (7 children)

      by bob_super (1357) on Tuesday September 12, @06:12PM (#566890)

      To me, it looks like a medieval monk's homework (or punishment). A lot of repeated symbols and crude drawings, because it took years of training before they could master the skills to flawlessly copy books.

      I saw one book from that era in Scotland the other day: jaw-dropping amazing letter consistency and page detail. Art and skill.
      Before you get to that art level, you need to practice. This manuscript is drawn on average quality "paper" and was probably bound with wood. Not exactly a masterwork.

      Until someone can prove it wrong, my vote in on full-scale training project, because no other explanation can be proven more right
      Lorem ipsum out.

      • (Score: 2, Funny) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 12, @06:33PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 12, @06:33PM (#566897)

        To me, it looks like a junior coder's homework (or punishment). A lot of code reuse and unnecessary comments, because it takes years of practice before they can master the skills to flawlessly copy-and-paste from Stack Oberflow.

      • (Score: 2) by edIII on Tuesday September 12, @08:13PM

        by edIII (791) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday September 12, @08:13PM (#566945)

        That is the best possible answer I've ever heard for it. The time period is correct, and you have an interesting point about what it was written on.

      • (Score: 3, Insightful) by tfried on Tuesday September 12, @08:40PM (1 child)

        by tfried (5534) on Tuesday September 12, @08:40PM (#566952)

        Very interesting thought (and the larger theme is: what if this simply has a lot less meaning than we're looking for), but that explanation does have a couple of problems, too:

        - If this is a training project, why isn't the text an intelligible copy of (fragments of) something? Making up a decent lore ipsum is hard, and there is little point to it.
        - If this is a training project, why are there no obvious repetitions of whole sections? You want to try, and try again, to achieve perfection, not just try and move on.
        - If this is a training project, wouldn't you expect to see some visible progression from worse to better, or at least from simple to more complex? At the least, this will have taken months to complete.
        - If this is a training project, why was it bound into a book at all? Wouldn't you expect separate training units for drawing/writing, and bookbinding? (And if it's a training project for bookbinding, using the copyist student's scrap paper, again, why doesn't it contain duplicates or intelligible fragments, or unfinished segments?)

        • (Score: 3, Interesting) by bob_super on Tuesday September 12, @10:19PM

          by bob_super (1357) on Tuesday September 12, @10:19PM (#566986)

          I didn't say it was a great hypothesis, just that it was both somewhat plausible and not more far-fetched than some of the other ones out there.

      • (Score: 3, Interesting) by vux984 on Tuesday September 12, @09:59PM

        by vux984 (5045) on Tuesday September 12, @09:59PM (#566979)

        Until someone can prove it wrong, my vote in on full-scale training project, because no other explanation can be proven more right

        It doesn't really pass the smell test. It's pretty well known that they practiced on texts that actually needed to be copied. Even if it was truly throw-away work they'd still just practice on documents that actually existed that were representative samples of the techniques they were working on. And if it it were a work for students to train on, there probably would be lots of copies floating around... the same way millions of attics in america have pages with 'The quick brown fox...' in 1st grade handwriting lying around in some dusty box.

        Lorem ipsum out.

        As you likely know "Lorem ipsum" isn't gibberish. It's a scrambled section of an existing work. But not so scrambled as to been a deliberate attempt to codify or obscure anything. I suspect if we could go back in time the printer just grabbed a plate from a work in latin lying around and just hastily and clumsily reworked it to fit into the space he was trying to fill. (basically 'cut n paste' but in a context applicable to how printing presses worked.)

        If the voynich manuscript was like lorum ipsum... it'd be maybe two chapters from the bible, a recipe for beer, the local wine harvest figures, and page 3-5 of beowulf... and it would be recognizable as such.

      • (Score: 2) by Non Sequor on Wednesday September 13, @10:38AM (1 child)

        by Non Sequor (1005) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday September 13, @10:38AM (#567158) Journal

        My understanding is that while the character diatribution is "weird" compared to normal writing, it's high enough entropy per symbol that it would be hard to fake without using an RNG. Handwriting analysis suggested that it wasn't written character by character.

        --
        Write your congressman. Tell him he sucks.
        • (Score: 2) by bob_super on Wednesday September 13, @04:27PM

          by bob_super (1357) on Wednesday September 13, @04:27PM (#567273)

          > it wasn't written character by character

          I know what you mean, yet that wording ...

    • (Score: 2) by Thexalon on Tuesday September 12, @06:38PM (2 children)

      by Thexalon (636) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday September 12, @06:38PM (#566904) Homepage

      It could be written in somebody's personal made-up language, for all we know. One of the proposed theories involves this being the scrawlings of a person who is just plain nuts.

      --
      If you act on pie in the sky, you're likely to get pie in the face.
      • (Score: 2) by edIII on Tuesday September 12, @08:07PM (1 child)

        by edIII (791) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday September 12, @08:07PM (#566942)

        Tolkien wrote in his own personal made up language. Made a fuckton more sense than the Voynich Manuscript, and I would think that linguists could decipher Tolkien's language without too much hassle. It was after all a serious attempt to create a new language with a strong foundation in linguistics.

        I personally believe Voynich's Manuscript is more of a free association log than anything else, and I bet it didn't even make real sense to the author. Otherwise, it was intended to be difficult to decipher, and if so, massive success. It may never be decoded.

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 13, @09:04AM

          by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 13, @09:04AM (#567140)

          A better comparison would be the Codex Seraphinianus. [wikipedia.org]

  • (Score: 5, Interesting) by ledow on Tuesday September 12, @07:12PM (2 children)

    by ledow (5567) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday September 12, @07:12PM (#566920) Homepage

    General rule: If YOU say you've cracked some long-running puzzle that's baffled experts for decades/centuries, you haven't.

    If, however, you quietly submit a paper, which then spreads of its own accord, is confirmed by others, builds momentum, and becomes public knowledge by some other person unrelated to yourself, leading to you having to then answer questions and provide answers like "I hoped, but I wasn't sure", etc. then maybe you have.

    As a mathematician, the first thing I'd do if I thought I'd cracked some puzzle is show it to other people, of varying amounts of trust, and if they thought it was worthy they'd do the same, take the time to double-check it, etc and ensure my credit. I wouldn't be claiming "Yee ha! I cracked it! You're all useless and I'm a genius!" on national TV as the first thing.

    Hint: If you have a mathematician friend and he says "No, sorry, I only took a brief look at it", then that's the polite version of "It's tripe, you don't understand the first thing about maths, fuck off with this shit".

    • (Score: 5, Insightful) by bob_super on Tuesday September 12, @09:16PM

      by bob_super (1357) on Tuesday September 12, @09:16PM (#566960)

      > I wouldn't be claiming "Yee ha! I cracked it! You're all useless and I'm a genius!" on national TV as the first thing.

      I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess you were born before 1990

    • (Score: 2) by JeanCroix on Wednesday September 13, @04:12PM

      by JeanCroix (573) on Wednesday September 13, @04:12PM (#567263)
      Very good point. And it should be pointed out that two days before the smug dismissal of Gibbs' pronouncement, the very same writer at Ars Technica published an article almost breathlessly buying right into the hype. [arstechnica.com] My favorite take [newyorker.com] on the whole thing is over at the New Yorker.
  • (Score: 2) by aristarchus on Tuesday September 12, @07:31PM

    by aristarchus (2645) on Tuesday September 12, @07:31PM (#566930) Journal

    More of an obscure, possibly encrypted, rebuttal? Khallow is going to be so disappointed!

    --
    guess who was the worst moderator on site, handing out more than twice the downmods of the next closest registered user
  • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 12, @08:29PM (2 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 12, @08:29PM (#566949)

    Right or wrong, at least someone is trying and put their thoughts out there. How many scholars were baffled for how long before other ancient texts were correctly deciphered? How many tenured experts got it wrong and had their results published and accepted as correct for decades? A lot. But with today's instant society and the internet of uneducated experts, people jump to conclusions.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 12, @09:37PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 12, @09:37PM (#566969)

      Effort is effort

      This weeken I'm gonna put lotsa effort in digging a hole. Based on it, I'm gonna claim I deciphered that Voynich manuscrip;, I hope i'm gonna get published.

    • (Score: 3, Insightful) by Unixnut on Tuesday September 12, @09:45PM

      by Unixnut (5779) on Tuesday September 12, @09:45PM (#566971)

      > How many scholars were baffled for how long before other ancient texts were correctly deciphered?

      This is a very good point. A lot of ancient texts were completely unintelligible, like Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Some scholars thought it wasn't a real language at all, but pictographic instructions for rituals, etc... or just motifs for artwork patterns. Nobody could translate them, and it was deemed impossible to do so. So much so that the Hieroglyphs were quite often destroyed or vandalised, as they were not seen as important as finding a mummy or treasure, or whatever in the Pyramids.

      And that is basically where things stood for ages, until humanity basically lucked out when we found the Rosetta Stone [wikipedia.org], which had the same text written in three scripts, one of which was Ancient Greek (which we could translate) and Egyptian.

      That was the key that unlocked Hieroglyphs for us. If it wasn't for pure blind luck in finding the stone, we would still be completely stumped with Egyptian, not that different to how we are currently with the Voynich Manuscript.

      Unless we find some counterpart "decoder" script for it, or we find out that there is a copy of the Voynich Manuscript in a language we understand (unlikely, as unlike Egyptian, this manuscript seems to have been deliberately written to be unreadable to people who don't have the secret) from which we can start deciphering it, chances are we will be stumped for a while.

  • (Score: 2) by hendrikboom on Tuesday September 12, @10:56PM (1 child)

    by hendrikboom (1125) on Tuesday September 12, @10:56PM (#566997) Homepage

    In 2014, someone made a procedurally generated book [github.com] inspired by the voynich manuscript. Have a look. It is fun to browse through.

  • (Score: 2) by Bot on Wednesday September 13, @01:13AM

    by Bot (3902) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday September 13, @01:13AM (#567037)

    Many people in the past decoded correctly the manuscript.
    Unfortunately when they get to the frog spell they tend to jump away to the nearest pond.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 13, @09:49AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 13, @09:49AM (#567150)

    Ti sef alagitas re a ternes re aslarentas mostar. Junugares tete a sloadin eret e selfa sef azere amos.

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