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.