This Medieval Manuscript Has Stumped Codebreakers for More Than a Century

In 1912, a rare book dealer named Wilfried Voynich came across a unique find at a Jesuit college in Italy. With its colorful illustrations and odd curlicue writing, this specimen was unlike any other book he owned. That’s because it had been written in an script unrecognizable to him and the rest of the academic world. 

The biggest clue to the manuscript's contents comes from its lively pictures. Of its 246 pages, 220 are illustrated with images of plants, zodiac symbols, and possibly pregnant naked women. A radiocarbon analysis from 2009 dated the Voynich manuscript to have originated some time between 1404 and 1438. The manuscript came with a (legible) letter inside the cover dated 1666 that listed some of the book's previous owners, all of whom had lived in the first half of the 17th century. Beyond that, little is known about the book’s origins. 

The first person said to have owned the manuscript was the Roman Emperor Rudolf II who was notoriously attracted to the bizarre. In addition to his fascination with alchemy and the occult, he was also known for "collecting" dwarves and cultivating a regiment of “giants” in his army.

After that, the manuscript fell under the ownership of a series of scholars and scientists, some of whom devoted years of their lives to cracking the script. When it was re-discovered by Voynich in the early 20th century, the obsessive attempts at deciphering it picked up right where they left off. Voynich enlisted the help of cryptography enthusiast William Newbold, a professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. He spent the last years of his life scrutinizing each letter with a magnifying glass and copying down the minute cracks in the ink, which he suspected to be an anagrammed shorthand code. The script was also analyzed by William Friedman, a master codebreaker from World War II. After three decades of poring through its pages, Friedman declared the mystery language uncrackable. 

Since then, the project has discovered new life on the Internet. Art historians, linguists, computer programmers, and amateur cryptography enthusiasts are now able to connect online and share their theories and discoveries. One of the more popular hypotheses is that the Voynich manuscript is just a plain old fraud. Whether it was the work of resourceful 20th-century scam artists, or some late-medieval monks with too much time on their hands, the Voynich manuscript could potentially be the most epic practical joke of all time. 

Despite this possibility, hardcore believers from around the world still devote time to cracking the inscrutable code. Further support for the book’s legitimacy was cemented last year when a professor of applied linguistics from the University of Bedfordshire claimed to have decoded a handful of words for the first time. By using the illustrations to identify proper names, like the word for Taurus and a number of medieval plants, he believes he’s translated nine words. The professor, Stephen Bax, said that his research “shows conclusively that the manuscript is not a hoax, as some have claimed, and is probably a treatise on nature, perhaps in a Near Eastern or Asian language.” This may indeed prove it to be the real explanation, but it still doesn't discount the fringe theory that the manuscript was penned by aliens

[h/t: The New Yorker]

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Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0
New 'Eye Language' Lets Paralyzed People Communicate More Easily
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0

The invention of sign language proved you don't need to vocalize to use complex language face to face. Now, a group of designers has shown that you don't even need control of your hands: Their new type of language for paralyzed people relies entirely on the eyes.

As AdAge reports, "Blink to Speak" was created by the design agency TBWA/India for the NeuroGen Brain & Spine Institute and the Asha Ek Hope Foundation. The language takes advantage of one of the few motor functions many paralyzed people have at their disposal: eye movement. Designers had a limited number of moves to work with—looking up, down, left, or right; closing one or both eyes—but they figured out how to use these building blocks to create a sophisticated way to get information across. The final product consists of eight alphabets and messages like "get doctor" and "entertainment" meant to facilitate communication between patients and caregivers.

Inside of a language book.
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

This isn't the only tool that allows paralyzed people to "speak" through facial movements, but unlike most other options currently available, Blink to Speak doesn't require any expensive technology. The project's potential impact on the lives of people with paralysis earned it the Health Grand Prix for Good at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity earlier in June.

The groups behind Blink to Speak have produced thousands of print copies of the language guide and have made it available online as an ebook. To learn the language yourself or share it with someone you know, you can download it for free here.

[h/t AdAge]

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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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iStock

Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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