Science Corner: Uncracked Codes

voynich photo

A sample page from the Voynich manuscript (Photo by D.C.Atty )

A good mystery offers many pleasures: the allure of secret knowledge, the hints of reality beyond what we already know, the neurochemical satisfaction of solving a puzzles. Of course, some mysteries are appealing because they have resisted solving for so long. From grand questions like the nature of dark matter and dark energy to ancient riddles like the Antikythera mechanism, unanswered questions stir the imagination, perhaps holding out some small measure of hope that we will have the uncommon insight to discover the solution. And so it is with the Voynich manuscript, an early 15th century document full of recognizable illustrations and indecipherable text. Or at least undeciphered—despite what you may have read recently.

Last week, The Times Literary Supplement published an editorial claiming to reveal the contents of the manuscript which have eluded countless cryptographers, historians, and hobbyists for a century or more. Or at least offering a description of the contents, essentially a rehash of a popular medical text. The narrative sounds compelling, tying together the assorted illustrations of plants and female bathers with plausible details and a conclusion exotic enough for contemporary readers while also sufficiently banal to feel likely. The only catch: other Voynich experts aren’t buying it.

I expect there may be further developments in this story; I certainly don’t know enough to say definitively that the solution is legit or yet another dead end. I did think the story offered a helpful case study in skepticism from a topic few are likely to be emotionally invested in. The editorial claiming to have the answer illustrates several qualities which should at least raise questions. First, there is the lack of detail. Well, actually, there are a lot of details, historical details, autobiographical details, and the like, all of which create an impression of expertise and help to shape a narrative. But details of the actual decoding are scarce, making it difficult to know whether the described contents actually line up with the manuscript.

Second is the lack of outside review or perspective. For science stories, coverage typically follows publication in a peer-reviewed journal which is a helpful (but not ironclad) indicator that the methodology and results satisfy some basic criteria. In this particular case, with the large amateur community involved with the Voynich manuscript, a solution may not necessarily first appear in a formal, refereed publication. Still, there is a community around the problem, which means there are plenty of folks who could weigh in on the proposed solution and how it fits in with the ensemble of prior attempts.

I would also include the appeal to an unavailable element as a red flag. The few decoded Latin words that were provided don’t actually form sentences or readable text. Instead, interpreting them is alleged to depend on an index where all the real details would have been maintained. While such an index is apparently not unknown for other contemporary documents, there’s no positive evidence that one existed and thus little indication of what it might contain. As a hypothetical construct, the index can thus be imbued with any property needed to resolve all outstanding concerns.

While probably not living up to the promise of a decoded text, I thought the original editorial was worthwhile for other reasons. The history of medieval medicine seems to be accurate, and is thus a good reminder that there was plenty of actively propagated and applied scientific knowledge in the Middle Ages. That era is also sometimes called the Dark Ages due to a common misconception that the Catholic Church put the screws to science for a few centuries. Granted, we no longer practice medicine in the same way, but there is a continuity of knowledge from classical Greek medical thought to today through the Middle Ages. We’ve simply had additional centuries in which to refine our understanding.

Additionally, the story of the Voynich manuscript is a reminder of just how easy it is for knowledge and information to get lost in time. Imagine in a few hundred years time having a Word document from 2017, but no available copies of the Word software. You might be able to decode some of the file contents, but reconstructing the entire document might be a considerable undertaking. Languages dies, formats are replaced. This is basically what has happened to the Voynich manuscript, just in analog form. How remarkable then that the Bible has been past down to us in a way that is both faithful to the original documents and comprehensible to us in the present.


Next week we’ll start our blog book club series on John Polkinghorne’s Quantum Physics and Theology, where I’ll go through the book a chapter at a time and post some thoughts in my weekly blog post, then we’ll discuss the chapter in the comments and via video chat. (See my previous series on The War on Science for examples, although this book is shorter and we’ll only cover one chapter per week.) For video chatting, I wanted to get some more feedback on what timing would work best for everyone. Thanks in advance for taking a minute to register your interest and availability so we can try to accommodate as many folks as possible.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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One Comment

  • drtonymitchell@gmail.com'
    DrTony commented on September 13, 2017 Reply

    Technically, speaking if you have a Word document, you should be able to read it simply because it is a document. What you probably meant was that you had a USB or other storage device with the file on it and no software with which to open it. This is unfortunately a current reality. If I am not mistaken, much of the data that was on the computers used during the Apollo missions is totally lost because we don’t the software to read the data.

    As the calendar turned from 1999 to 2000, there was a great demand for COBOL programmers because much of the business software was in COBOL and it wasn’t being taught in schools.

    As to cracking an unknown code, one only need to look at the history of the Rosetta stone to see how it might be done. Provided you have some idea of the context (as was the case with the Rosetta stone), then it can be cracked. It took a little longer to crack the Mayan tablets simply because the context was missing for a long time. And if there is no written language, it is extremely difficult to understand what is going on at a location. Chaco Canyon is one such example.

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