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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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Kyle Ely
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Dedicated Middle School Teacher Transforms His Classroom Into Hogwarts
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Kyle Ely

It would be hard to dread back-to-school season with Kyle Ely as your teacher. As ABC News reports, the instructor brought a piece of Hogwarts to Evergreen Middle School in Hillsboro, Oregon by plastering his classroom with Harry Potter-themed decor.

The journey into the school's makeshift wizarding world started at his door, which was decorated with red brick wall paper and a "Platform 9 3/4" sign above the entrance. Inside, students found a convincing Hogwarts classroom complete with floating candles, a sorting hat, owl statues, and house crests. He even managed to recreate the starry night sky effect of the school’s Great Hall by covering the ceiling with black garbage bags and splattering them with white paint.

The whole project cost the teacher around $300 to $400 and took him 70 hours to build. As a long-time Harry Potter fan, he said that being able to share his love of the book series with his students made it all pay off it. He wrote in a Facebook post, "Seeing their faces light up made all the time and effort put into this totally worth it."

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Though wildly creative, the Hogwarts-themed classroom at Evergreen Middle School isn't the first of its kind. Back in 2015, a middle school teacher in Oklahoma City outfitted her classroom with a potions station and a stuffed version of Fluffy to make the new school year a little more magical. Here are some more unique classroom themes teachers have used to transport their kids without leaving school.

[h/t ABC News]

Images courtesy of Kyle Ely.

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literature
How the Rise of Paperback Books Turned To Kill a Mockingbird Into a Literary Classic
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Tim Boyle/Getty Images

If you went to middle or high school in the U.S. in the last few decades, chances are you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's now-classic novel (which was adapted into a now-classic film) about racial injustice in the South. Even if you grew up far-removed from Jim Crow laws, you probably still understand its significance; in 2006, British librarians voted it the one book every adult should read before they die. And yet the novel, while considered an instant success, wasn’t always destined for its immense fame, as we learned from the Vox video series Overrated. In fact, its status in the American literary canon has a lot to do with the format in which it was printed.

To Kill a Mockingbird came out in paperback at a time when literary houses were just starting to invest in the format. After its publication in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was reviewed favorably in The New York Times, but it wasn’t the bestselling novel that year. It was the evolution of paperbacks that helped put it into more hands.

Prior to the 1960s, paperbacks were often kind of trashy, and when literary novels were published in the format, they still featured what Vox calls “sexy covers,” like a softcover edition of The Great Gatsby that featured a shirtless Jay Gatsby on the cover. According to a 1961 article in The New York Times, back in the 1950s, paperbacks were described as “a showcase for the ‘three S’s—sex, sadism, and the smoking gun.’” But then, paperbacks came to schools.

The mass-market paperback for To Kill a Mockingbird came out in 1962. It was cheap, but had stellar credentials, which appealed to teachers. It was a popular, well-reviewed book that earned Lee the Pulitzer Prize. Suddenly, it was in virtually every school and, even half a century later, it still is.

Learn the whole story in the video below from Vox.

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