The Internet Archive // Public Domain
The Internet Archive // Public Domain

Man Claims He Decoded the Voynich Manuscript, But Experts Don't Buy It

The Internet Archive // Public Domain
The Internet Archive // Public Domain

Nicholas Gibbs, a historian and TV writer, claims he has solved one of the most confounding mysteries facing medieval scholars—one that has stumped researchers for at least 100 years. The handwritten Voynich manuscript was written in a still-unknown language (and alphabet) sometime around the 15th century, and features illustrations of plants that, for the most part, scientists haven't been able to identify. Theories about why it was created in the first place are still just speculative. But according to Gibbs, it's about women's health. In a recent issue of The Times Literary Supplement, Gibbs claims to have cracked the code to translating the Voynich.

The problem? Most scholars who specialize in medieval texts and linguistics say he's full of hot air, according to The Atlantic. If Gibbs had sent his theory to the Yale library that holds the manuscript, "they would have rebutted it in a heartbeat," the Medieval Academy of America's Lisa Fagin Davis, a professor of manuscript studies, told The Atlantic.

The Voynich manuscript is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a rare book dealer who bought it in 1912, bringing it back into the public eye after it was forgotten for centuries. According to Gibbs, it is a “reference book of selected remedies lifted from the standard treatises of the medieval period, an instruction manual for the health and wellbeing of the more well to do women in society, which was quite possibly tailored to a single individual.” To support his translation, Gibbs argues that every letter in the manuscript is not just a letter, but a Latin abbreviation for a word, like how the ampersand was formed out of the letter "e" and "t," for the Latin "et," or "and."

Gibbs only provides two lines of decoded text to support his hypothesis, but in Latin, the decryption doesn't make grammatical sense. Many of his other revelations about the book, such as similarities in its illustrations to the "Balneis Puteolanis" ("The Baths of Pozzuoli")—a 13th-century poem that served as a guide to thermal baths—have already circulated among those studying the manuscript. Voynich obsessives have previously pointed out that the illustrations indicate that the manuscript probably has something to do with health, for instance. So even beyond the translation attempts, his theory on the whole isn't entirely groundbreaking.

A fold-out from the Voynich manuscript shows circular, decorative illustrations.
The Internet Archive // Public Domain

For years, linguists, cryptographers, theoretical physicists, computer scientists, amateur detectives, and others have been working on breaking the code. During World War II, some of the U.S. Army's cryptanalysts even spent some of their off hours trying (in vain) to crack it.

Gibbs isn't the only person to claim he has solved at least part of the mystery. In 2014, British linguist Stephen Bax proposed a partial decoding of just 10 words, including the word for Taurus near an illustration of part of the constellation. Earlier this year, medievalist Stephen Skinner claimed to have pinned down the origins of the author, who he believes was a Jewish doctor in northern Italy. On the other hand, some scholars argue that the book is meaningless, and is just one big hoax.

If you want to get in on the search for the book's meaning (provided one exists), you don't need to flip through online scans of the manuscript. It was recently released in replica for the first time.

[h/t The Atlantic]

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Medicine
Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

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NASA // Public Domain
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History
On This Day in 1983, Sally Ride Made History
NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

Thirty-five years ago today, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She flew on the space shuttle Challenger on a six-day mission. She had previously helped build the shuttle's robot arm, and now she operated it in space. Not only was she the first American woman to go to space, she was the youngest astronaut in space, at age 32.

(As with many space-related firsts, that "American" qualifier is important. The Soviet space program had sent two women cosmonauts into space well in advance of Ride. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova flew all the way back in 1963, and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. They also sent various younger people to space, including Tereshkova.)

Ride represented a change in the previously completely male astronaut program. Although NASA had unofficially tested women in the late 1950s as part of the Mercury program, the idea of sending women into space was quickly discarded. NASA policy for decades was that only men would be considered as astronauts. It took until 1978 for NASA to change the policy—that year, six women became astronauts: Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Kathryn Sullivan, Anna Fisher, Margaret Rhea Seddon, and Shannon Lucid.

Ride and her colleagues were subject to an endless barrage of sexist media questions, curious how women might fare in space. They also encountered institutional sexism at NASA itself. Ride recalled:

"The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup—so they designed a makeup kit. A makeup kit brought to you by NASA engineers. ... You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit."

Ride held a Ph.D. in astrophysics, two bachelor's degrees (English and physics), and had served as CapCom (Capsule Communicator) for the second and third shuttle flights, STS-2 and -3. She was an accomplished pilot and athlete, as well as a Presbyterian elder. She was closely connected to Challenger, performing two missions on it and losing four fellow members of her 1978 class when it exploded.

After her astronaut career concluded, Ride served on both the Challenger and Columbia disaster review panels. During the former, she leaked vital information about the Challenger disaster (o-ring engineering reports), though this wasn't broadly known until after her death. She wrote educational books and founded Sally Ride Science. She was asked to head up NASA by the Clinton administration, but declined.

Ride died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer. Her obituary made news for quietly mentioning that she was survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy. Although Ride had come out to her family and close friends, the obituary was the first public statement that she was gay. It was also the first time most people found out she'd suffered from pancreatic cancer at all; she asked that donations in her memory be made to a fund devoted to studying that form of cancer.

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