Researchers Claim to Crack the Voynich Manuscript Using AI, But Experts Are Skeptical

Computing scientists at the University of Alberta recently made a bold claim: They say they’ve identified the source language of the baffling Voynich Manuscript, and they did so using artificial intelligence.

Their study, published in Transactions of the Association of Computational Linguistics [PDF], basically states that an AI algorithm trained to recognize hundreds of languages determined the Voynich Manuscript to be encoded Hebrew. On the surface, this looks like a huge breakthrough: Since it was rediscovered a century ago, the Voynich Manuscript’s indecipherable text has stumped everyone from World War II codebreakers to computer programmers. But experts are hesitant to give credence to the news. “I have very little faith in it,” cryptographer Elonka Dunin tells Mental Floss. “Hebrew, and dozens of other languages have been identified before. Everyone sees what they want to see.”

Anyone who’s familiar with the Voynich Manuscript should understand the skepticism. The book, which contains 246 pages of illustrations and apparent words written in an unknown script, is obscured by mystery. It’s named for Wilfrid Voynich, the Polish book dealer who purchased it in 1912, but experts believe it was written 600 years ago. Nothing is known about the person who authored it or the book’s purpose.

Many cryptologists suspect the text is a cipher, or a coded pattern of letters that must be unscrambled to make sense. But no code has been identified even after decades of the world’s best cryptographers testing countless combinations. With their study, the researchers at the University of Alberta claim to have done something different. Instead of relying on human linguists and codebreakers, they developed an AI program capable of identifying the source languages of text. They fed the technology 380 versions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, each one translated into a different language and enciphered. After learning to recognize codes in various languages, the AI was given some pages of the Voynich Manuscript. Based on what it had seen already, it named Hebrew as the book’s original language—a surprise to the researchers, who were expecting Arabic.

The researchers then devised an algorithm that rearranged the letters into real words. They were able to make actual Hebrew out of 80 percent of the encoded words in the manuscript. Next, they needed to find an ancient Hebrew scholar to look at the words and determine if they fit together coherently.

But the researchers claim they were unable to get in touch with any scholars, and instead used Google Translate to make sense of the first sentence of the manuscript. In English, the decoded words they came up with read, “She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people." Study co-author Greg Kondrak said in a release, “It’s a kind of strange sentence to start a manuscript but it definitely makes sense.”

Dunin is less optimistic. According to her, naming a possible cipher and source language without actually translating more of the text is no cause for celebration. “They identify a method without decrypting a paragraph,” she says. Even their method is questionable. Dunin points out the AI program was trained using ciphers that the researchers themselves wrote, not ciphers from real life. “They scrambled the texts using their own system, then they used their own software to de-scramble those. Then they used it on the manuscript and said, ‘Oh look, it’s Hebrew!’ So it’s a big, big leap.”

The University of Alberta researchers aren’t the first to claim they’ve identified the language of the Voynich Manuscript, and they won’t be the last. But unless they’re able the decode the full text into a meaningful language, the manuscript remains as mysterious today as it did 100 years ago. And if you agree with cryptographers like Dunin who think the book might be a constructed language, a detailed hoax, or even a product of mental illness, it’s a mystery without a satisfying explanation.

Why You Should Never Flush Your Contacts Down the Drain

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iStock

When a pair of contact lenses reach the end of their short life span, it may be tempting to dump them—and the liquid they’re stored in—down the bathroom sink drain. As The Atlantic points out, though, this is bad for the environment.

However small and thin they may be, contact lenses can contribute to microplastic pollution in waterways when they’re not disposed of properly, according to a new study presented at the recent American Chemical Society national meeting in Boston. The study surveyed contact lens users and non-users, and found that 19 percent of users flush the lenses down the toilet or sink drain instead of placing them in the trash. That translates to about 3 billion contact lenses per year, Rolf Halden, a researcher at Arizona State University and one of the study's authors, told The Atlantic.

Halden said he was inspired to look into the issue out of personal interest—he, too, wears contact lenses—and because he couldn’t find any studies on what happens to lenses after they’re flushed down the drain. Halden and his team discovered that the lenses end up in wastewater, where they can sink to the bottom because they are denser than water. There, they could endanger aquatic life, especially bottom feeders that may ingest the particles.

Researchers also found that microbes in wastewater treatment plant systems can degrade the structure of the lenses themselves and break them into tinier pieces. In the larger environment, those bits could be consumed by every organism in the local food chain. In addition, some of the flushed lenses are turned into a treated sewage sludge that is ultimately used to fertilize crops, so the waste could end up in our soil and affect creatures like earthworms. The extent to which this affects humans' food supply is not currently known.

"Ultimately, we hope that manufacturers will conduct more research on how the lenses impact aquatic life and how fast the lenses degrade in a marine environment,” Halden says in a statement.

So the next time you’re done using your contact lenses, think of the fish and worms, and throw them in the trash instead.

[h/t The Atlantic]

Debunking 6 Common Home Remedies That Aren't Worth Trying

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iStock

While it’s never fun—or cheap—to go to the doctor, sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and make an appointment. While you may read a slew of articles online during your middle-of-the-night WebMD binge, the “natural” home remedies that some blogs swear by are often at best no better than placebos, and at worst actively harmful.

A new video from SciShow explores several home “remedies” that don’t actually help treat common medical issues. The nine-minute video debunks some of the "natural" treatments that people often cite as cures for ailments as benign as allergies or as serious as poisoning. Spoiler: Most of them have no scientific basis.

If, for instance, you’ve ever heard the idea that local honey can act as an allergy cure, put down the spoon. Despite being delicious, honey doesn’t provide enough exposure to the allergens that cause those sniffles and itches to help. When your seasonal allergies hit, take medication or visit an allergist instead.

How about the old custom of putting butter on a burn? Unsurprisingly, fatty foodstuffs don’t make great wound treatments. While people used to believe that burns shouldn’t be exposed to air, oily substances like butter will actually trap heat from your burn, making it worse. The key to treating a burn is cooling it off. You want to stick it in cool water, not warm butter.

If you are unlucky enough to catch head lice, you're probably willing to try whatever you can get your hands on to destroy the little critters. But that pricey medicated shampoo really is the best way to go. Scientists have found that washing your hair with vinegar isn’t the answer. Researchers have found that lice nesting in hair aren’t affected by vinegar, even when the hair in question is soaked for 8 hours.

Some of these home remedies seem a little out-there, but others are understandable. Ipecac syrup once had a place on every pharmacy shelf as a method of treating people who ingested poison. The syrup is poisonous itself, and it makes you vomit—but vomiting isn’t a guarantee that your body has rid itself of all the toxins, and it might just make it harder for your doctor to diagnose what’s going on. Poison Control no longer recommends keeping ipecac syrup on hand, and U.S. manufacturers stopped making it in 2010.

Tilting your head back to staunch a nosebleed is yet another common treatment that can backfire on you. Tilting your head back does stop the blood from flowing from your nose. But it means that your blood will flow down your throat instead of out your nose. So instead of getting a towel bloody, you put yourself at risk of choking on your own blood.

The last “remedy” SciShow tackles isn’t directly harmful, but it won’t help, either. Some people recommend treating pink eye by using warm chamomile tea bags as eye compresses. While chamomile does have some anti-inflammatory properties, there’s no evidence that chamomile is at all effective in treating pink eye. Draping warm tea bags over your eyes probably won’t harm you, and in fact, the heat may relieve some pain, but the tea itself isn’t going to cure you.

Dive into the facts behind these “remedies” in the video below. And remember: when in doubt, always go to the doctor.

[h/t Digg]

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