The Most Secretive Book in History

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Digital Studio
The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Digital Studio

A bizarre medieval manuscript written in a language no one can read has baffled the world’s best cryptologists, stumped the most powerful code-breaking computers, and been written off as a masterful hoax. Can the hive mind finally unlock its secrets?

 

The breakthrough, when it finally came, happened in a most unremarkable way. Stephen Bax was in his home office late at night. It was April 2013, and he’d spent the previous 10 months poring over reproductions of a 15th-century manuscript bursting with bizarre drawings: female figures in green baths; astrological symbols; intricate geometric designs; plants that seemed familiar but also just slightly off. Strangest of all—and the reason Bax, a 54-year-old professor of applied linguistics in Bedfordshire, England, had become obsessed—were the 35,000 words in the manuscript. Written in an elaborate, beautiful script, the language has never appeared on any other document, anywhere. Ever.

At his day job at the University of Bedfordshire’s Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment, Bax focuses on English language learning. Decoding ancient manuscripts is not in his purview. But ever since he’d heard about this mysterious book, he’d been fixated on it: scouring the web, talking to scholars, analyzing 14th-century herbal manuscripts at the British Library. And he was fairly confident he’d identified a few words in the document: juniper, cotton, the constellation Taurus. But before he could go public with his findings, he needed more.

On this particular evening, he was looking at the first word of script on a page numbered f3v, which contained an illustration of a plant that looked like hellebore. According to the scheme Bax had worked out, the word spelled out kaur— a word he wasn’t familiar with. So Bax did what anyone would do: He pulled up Google and typed “hellebore” and “kaur.” Then he pressed enter.

 
 

The Voynich Manuscript—a soft-bound, 240-page volume—has baffled cryptanalysts, linguists, computer scientists, physicists, historians, and academics since it was rediscovered in the early 20th century. To date, no one has deciphered it, and no one knows why it was made. Experts don’t know what to make of it: is it a cipher, a code, a long-lost language?

There’s been plenty of speculation, both inside and outside academia. Over the past century, the case of the Voynich has been cracked and debunked, cracked and debunked again, and even—rather convincingly!—exposed as a hoax. Even the book’s acquisition is a mystery.


Click to enlarge.

The story starts with a London-based book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich, who discovered the book in 1912. From the beginning, Voynich was evasive about how he acquired the tome—he claimed he’d been sworn to secrecy about its origin, and the story he recounted changed often. In the one he told most frequently, he’d been at “an ancient castle in Southern Europe” when he found this “ugly duckling” buried in a “most remarkable collection of precious illuminated manuscripts.”

For a book dealer, it was like stumbling onto treasure. Back in London he dubbed his acquisition the “Roger Bacon cipher,” after the 13th-century English monk and scientist, and put it up for sale. A letter that came with the book suggested Bacon was the author; whether Voynich actually believed it, or whether he simply believed that associating the book with Bacon would help him fetch a higher resale price, is unclear.

“I think he’s best compared to a used car dealer,” says René Zandbergen, a space scientist who lives near Darmstadt, Germany, and runs a Voynich website in his spare time. “He was selling secondhand books and making sure that this [one] would get the best price he could get.”

By 1919, Voynich had sent copies of the manuscript to experts who might be able to determine the book’s purpose. One of those men was William Romaine Newbold, a philosophy professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Taking a magnifying glass to the text, Newbold noticed strange irregularities at the edges of the letters. He believed the tiny lines were Greek shorthand—and that each letter contained as many as 10 of them. The letters themselves, he thought, were meaningless. But the shorthand might hold the key to decoding the manuscript.

Newbold converted the script to letters, and then anagrammed until he found readable text. His translation seemed to corroborate Voynich’s hunch: The manuscript had belonged to Bacon, and the illustrations showed that the friar scientist had made incredible discoveries. One drawing, Newbold believed, showed the spiral-shaped Andromeda Galaxy—hundreds of years before astronomers would discern the galaxy’s structure—and others showed cells. Newbold surmised that this meant Bacon would have had to have invented both the telescope and the microscope. If his contemporaries had known what he was up to, Newbold theorized, they’d have accused him of working with the devil. That’s why he had to use a cipher to record his findings.

Word of the manuscript spread. In 1931, John M. Manly, a Chaucer expert at the University of Chicago—who’d been “dabbling” with the manuscript for years—published a paper that erased Newbold’s findings: Those irregularities at the edge of the letters weren’t shorthand; they were simply cracks in the ink.

But Manly’s discovery only fueled the public’s desire to understand the mysterious manuscript. Before long, experts from every field had joined the effort: Renaissance art historians, herbalists, lawyers, British intelligence, and teams of amateurs. Even William Friedman, who had led the team that solved Japan’s “unbreakable” Purple cipher in World War II and had since become head cryptanalyst at the National Security Agency, took a crack at it. He never got close to solving it.

There are lots of questions surrounding the Voynich manuscript, but the most essential is: What is it? Because of the numerous illustrations of plants, many believe the manuscript may be an herbalist’s textbook, written in some kind of cipher or code—and the two terms are not synonymous. Technically, a code can only be cracked if you have—or can figure out—the guide to that code. A cipher is a more flexible algorithm, say, where one letter is substituted for another. (For a simple example, a = p.)

There are a number of ways to crack a cipher, but one common technique is frequency analysis. You count all the characters, find which are most common, and match that against a similar pattern in a known language. More elaborate ciphers might require different kinds of frequency analysis or other mathematical methods.

What Friedman saw—and what makes the Voynich so compelling—is that the text isn’t random. There are clear patterns. “There’s a set number of characters, an ‘alphabet’ with letters that repeat,” says Elonka Dunin, a Nashville video game designer and author of The Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms who created her own page-for-page replica of the Voynich (just for fun!). But she has doubts that the book is a cipher. “Ciphers back then were just not that sophisticated. With modern computers, we can crack these things quite quickly.” But a computer hasn’t yet, and that’s a red flag.

Back in 1959, Friedman came to the same conclusion. Never able to crack the code, he believed the text was “an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type”—in other words, a language made up from scratch. Some agree. But others think the words might be a language of another kind. Which brings us to Bax.

 
 

It took a split second for Bax's Google results to confirm that kaur was a name in Indian herbal guides for black hellebore. It was a match! “I almost jumped up and down,” he says. “All of the months and months of work were starting to show some cracks in the armor of the manuscript.” That night, he couldn’t sleep. He kept going over the research in his head, expecting to come up with a mistake.

If he was right—if certain words were identifiable as plant names—then his findings agreed with Friedman: The book was not a cipher. But unlike Friedman, Bax didn’t think the language was made up. He was convinced that it resembled a natural language. He’s not alone. One study of the Voynich, published in 2013 by Marcelo Montemurro and Damián Zanette, noted that statistical analysis of the manuscript showed that the text has certain organizational structures comparable to known languages. The most commonly used words are relatively simple constructions (think the or a), while more infrequent words, those that might be used to convey specific concepts, have structural similarities, the way many verbs and nouns do in other languages.


The Voynich manuscript is full of weird drawings of plants—but Stephen Bax believes he's unraveled text that identifies the one at left as hellebore.
The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Digital Studio

However, there are quirks. In most languages, certain word combinations recur frequently; but according to Zandbergen, that rarely happens in the Voynich. The words tend to have a prefix, a root, and a suffix, and while some have all three, others have only one or two. So you can get words that combine just a prefix and a suffix—uning, for example. Further, there are no two-letter words or words with more than 10 characters, which is strange for a European language. That’s enough to put some people off the idea that it could be a natural language.

When Bax started working with the text, he treated it like Egyptian hieroglyphics. He borrowed an approach used by Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion, who in 1822 used the proper names of pharaohs—easy to identify because they were marked with a special outline—to work backward, assigning sound values to the symbols and then extrapolating other words from these. This was something that, Bax says, no one had systematically attempted on the Voynich.

The first proper name Bax identified was a word next to an illustration of a group of stars resembling Pleiades. “People before us suggested that that particular word is probably related to Taurus,” he says. “If you assume it says Taurus, the first sound must be a ta, or somewhere in that region—ta, da, Taurus, Daurus.” The process seems insanely daunting at first: “On the basis of one word alone, that’s just complete imagination,” he says. “But then you take that possible ta sound and you look at other possible proper nouns through the manuscript and see if you can see a pattern emerging.”

Bax worked for a year and a half, deciphering crumbs of letter-sound correspondences. Eight months after he confirmed hellebore, he published a paper online detailing his method. He cautiously announced the “provisional and partial” decoding of 10 words, including juniper, hellebore, coriander, nigella sativa, Centaurea, and the constellation Taurus.

"University of Bedfordshire professor cracks code to mysterious 15th-century Voynich manuscript," the local paper blared. Quickly, news organizations around the world joined in.

 
 

Nothing major happens in the long saga of the Voynich without media hype. The last time it had happened, in 2004, a British computer scientist named Gordon Rugg had published a paper showing that the whole thing might be an elaborate hoax created expressly to separate a wealthy buyer from a lot of money. And where there’s media controversy, there’s contention among Voynich obsessives. Rugg says his theory was like “someone grabbing the football and walking off the pitch in the middle of a really fun game.”


Click to enlarge.

Bax’s proclamation came with its share of controversy, too. People in the Voynich world have seen a lot of so-called cracks over the years, none of which have panned out, so when the news stories appeared on Bax’s paper, Dunin, the video game designer, just laughed. “The media just picks it up uncritically and says, ‘He must have solved it.’ He didn’t,” she says. “He’s saying, ‘I saw this, and this looked intriguing,’ and that’s perfectly valid. But it’s not a crack.” Others criticized his methods: Some had issues with the idea that the first word on a page is a plant name, because many of those words start with one of only two letters. Some found it weird that his translation has three different characters that stand for the letter r.

Bax doesn’t claim he’s cracked the code. “I’m prepared to see that some of the interpretations I’ve suggested are revised or even thrown out,” he says. “That’s the way you make progress on something like this. But I’m pretty convinced that a lot of it is solid.”

He’s determined to prove it, by stoking more dialogue within the obsessive community. In addition to the Voynich Wikipedia page, there’s an entire Wiki devoted to the book’s oddities and the efforts to crack it. Mailing lists started in the early 1990s are still going strong. Reddit, too, has taken an interest, and when Bax did an AMA after publishing his paper, it got 100,000 pageviews. Bax himself has set up a website to document his efforts. He actively encourages participation, fielding comments from visitors eager to help him decode the book.


Some people see similarities between the book and the Tarot. Bax (inset) is soliciting opinions online.
The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Digital Studio

One such volunteer is Milan-based Marco Ponzi, who had been researching Tarot card history when he found Bax’s paper. Ponzi began commenting on Bax’s website, suggesting there might be parallels between certain diagrams in the volume and images that appear in the Tarot. “Since Stephen is so rigorous and so kind, I feel encouraged to propose new ideas,” he says. “I don’t know if I have contributed anything really useful, but it is very fun.”

“Marco is bringing his expertise in medieval art, iconography, and Italian manuscripts—which I don’t have,” says Bax. “This is one of the beauties of doing it through the web.” Indeed, it’s become an international collaboration. Bax has asked other readers to add their own observations in the comments section, and spends a lot of time responding to queries and participating in the discussion. In the future, he hopes to host conferences and seminars about the book, and to set up a site where he can crowdsource efforts to decode other Voynich sections. If the method works, he expects that the manuscript could be decoded within four years.

What will be revealed when—and if— it is? Bax believes the manuscript is a treatise on the natural world, written in a script invented to record a previously unwritten language or dialect—possibly a Near Eastern one—created by a small community that later disappeared. “If it did turn out to be from a group of people who have disappeared,” he says, “it could unlock a whole area of a particular country or a group that is completely unknown to us.”

Other theories put forth that the secrets locked inside the Voynich’s vellum pages could reveal a coming apocalypse—or merely the details of medieval hygiene. Some people think the script could be the observations of a traveler who was trying to learn a language like Arabic or Chinese, or a stream-of-consciousness recording of someone in a trance. The most bizarre theories involve aliens or a long-lost underground race of lizard people.

It’s possible that the book will never tell us anything. To Zandbergen, whether it has huge secrets to reveal doesn’t matter at all. He just wants to know why the book was written. Whether it’s the work of a hoaxer, an herbalist, or a lizard person, the Voynich is important all the same. “It’s still a manuscript from the 15th century. It has historical value,” he says. But until the truth is revealed—and probably even after—people will keep trying to crack the Voynich. After all, who doesn’t love a good puzzle?

The Lavender Scare: When the U.S. Government Persecuted Employees for Being Gay

President Dwight Eisenhower circa 1959
President Dwight Eisenhower circa 1959
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many people have heard of the Red Scare, an episode of persecution of suspected communists in the 1940s and 1950s, but they’re less familiar with a scare of a different hue. Over the same period, and into the 1990s, officials investigated and fired government employees for being gay or lesbian—a phenomenon that has become known as the “Lavender Scare.”

Thousands of people were pushed out of government jobs, whether they worked at the State Department or other agencies, as federal contractors, or in the military, because of their perceived sexuality—and, in some cases, because of guilt by association. Most remain anonymous, part of a chapter in LGBTQ history that is frequently ignored.

"The Pervert File"

The Lavender Scare was the product of a perfect storm of circumstances. During the Great Depression and World War II, many gays and lesbians left their rural communities in search of opportunities elsewhere, including in Washington, D.C. Government jobs provided excellent pay and benefits, and in a city, people could build community. But trouble lay ahead.

The first rumblings began in 1947, when the U.S. Park Police instituted a “Sex Perversion Elimination Program” explicitly targeting gay men in Washington, D.C. public parks for harassment. Patrols focused on Lafayette and Franklin Parks, where any men deemed suspicious could be picked up regardless of their intentions. Men were arrested and intimidated, pushed to pay fines to resolve their arrests and go home—but not before their information, including fingerprints and photographs, was collected for inclusion in a “pervert file.” By February 1950, 700 men had been apprehended, 200 of whom were arrested. According to historian David K. Johnson in his book The Lavender Scare, the typical detainee was a 25-year-old government clerk.

The parks program appeared against the backdrop of “sexual psychopath” laws. Passed across the country starting in the 1930s, these laws criminalized LGBTQ people and promoted forcible treatment [PDF] for their sexual expression, which was viewed as a mental disorder. Nebraska Republican Arthur Miller, who authored D.C.’s now-repealed “sexual psychopath” law in 1948, became one of the most vitriolic individuals in attacking gay federal employees: “There are places in Washington where they gather for the purpose of sex orgies, where they worship at the cesspool and flesh pots of iniquity,” Miller said in a blisteringly homophobic floor speech in early 1950.

Miller wasn't the only one speaking out about the perceived menace. In his now-infamous speeches on the Senate floor in February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy explicitly linked communism and homosexuality, arguing that LGBTQ people were particularly susceptible to communist recruitment because of their "peculiar mental twists."

McCarthy's speeches—and a revelation by deputy undersecretary of state John Peurifoy that the State Department had recently fired 91 employees for being gay—led to a public outcry. Within a month of McCarthy taking to the Senate floor, a Congressional investigation led by senators Kenneth Wherry and J. Lister Hill laid the groundwork for hearings on the issue. Those ultimately resulted in a bipartisan December 1950 report: “Employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts in government,” led by Democratic senator Clyde R. Hoey.

The report, which drew upon extensive interviews with federal agencies and the military, concluded that gay people should not be employed by the government because they were "generally unsuitable" and because they constituted a security risk. The unsuitability was said to stem from the fact that "overt acts of sex perversion" were a crime under federal and local laws, as well as the assertion that "persons who engage in such activity are looked upon as outcasts by society generally." Furthermore, the report said, gay people "lack the emotional stability of normal persons" and "indulgence in acts of sex perversion weakens the moral fiber of an individual to a degree that he is not suitable for a position of responsibility." This lack of moral fiber was said to make gay people, who might be blackmailed for their activities, particularly "susceptible to the blandishments of the foreign espionage agent."

In a callback to the park stings of the 1940s, the report successfully recommended changes to D.C. criminal procedure that forced men suspected of “perversion” into court when they were caught by law enforcement, effectively outing them. The report also pushed government entities to develop clear policies and procedures for terminating gay and lesbian employees—a recommendation that would have tremendous consequences.

"As Dangerous as the Communists"

Kenneth Wherry
Kenneth Wherry
Harris & Ewing, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The government seized on the idea that being gay was a security risk. As Senator Wherry put it, "Only the most naive could believe that the Communists' fifth column in the United States would neglect to propagate and use homosexuals to gain their treacherous ends." In a 1950 newsletter, Republican National Chair Guy George Gabrielson cited “sexual perverts” as a government peril that was "perhaps as dangerous as the actual communists" [PDF].

Inspired in part by the Hoey Report, President Dwight Eisenhower signed executive order 10450 in 1953, listing “sexual perversion” as grounds for identifying someone as a security risk. The document made it possible to aggressively pursue people like Airman Second Class Helen Grace James. James has described being followed and watched during her days in the Air Force, even during activities as innocent as eating a sandwich with a friend or going to the bathroom. The feeling of constant scrutiny affected her mental health and her sleep. "We were scared all the time," she told the Criminal podcast.

Once James was arrested in 1955, the Army threatened to go to her parents and friends with news of her sexuality, saying James was "a threat to the nation and a bad person," she explained to Criminal. "I finally said, just write down whatever you want to write down and I'll sign it."

After being discharged, James fled the East Coast. "[I] had no money, no support at all. I couldn't tell my family, I couldn't tell my friends," she said. "I had hoped to make a career of the Air Force, I loved it." Being kicked out of the Air Force, she felt, was a stain on her military family. She fought for years to change her undesirable discharge to an honorable one; she was finally successful in 2018.

James suffered in silence for years, but Frank Kameny took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1957, he was fired from his job as an astronomer with the Army Map Service for being gay. In his Supreme Court petition three years later, he called the government's policies on homosexuality “nothing more than a reflection of ancient primitive, archaic, obsolete taboos … an anachronistic relic of the Stone Age carried over into the Space Age—and a harmful relic!” His case may have been the first explicitly involving LGBTQ rights to make its way before the court, which denied his appeal. Kameny went on to become a prominent member of the gay rights movement, and was a founder of the Mattachine Society, an activist organization that collects and preserves important archival material related to LGBTQ history.

All in all, an estimated 10,000 people lost their jobs in the Lavender Scare. President Clinton effectively overturned parts of Executive Order 10450 in 1995, but the government didn't apologize for the discrimination until the administration of Barack Obama.

Fellow Travelers

Frank Kameny attending Pride on June 12, 2010
LGBTQ activist and Lavender Scare target Frank Kameny attending a Pride event in 2010

Although not a well-known period in history, The Lavender Scare has had a cultural afterlife. It was the subject of a 2017 documentary, and a key element of a 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers, which followed a youthful civil servant, a forbidden affair, and the terror of living a double life in 1950s Washington. The book was adapted into an opera first staged in 2016, complete with a set inspired by the overbearing style of 1950s brutalist architecture.

“The piece wants to memorialize those people whose lives were lost, or jobs were lost,” Peter Rothstein, who directed the Minnesota Opera production, tells Mental Floss. Many members of the LGBTQ community aren’t aware of the Lavender Scare, or don’t know about its full extent, something Rothstein discovered when he started to research in preparation for the production. “I thought I was kind of up on my queer history. I was like 'whoa!' The scope of it.”

While stereotypes about gay men and musical theater abound, Rothstein notes that musicals play an important role in America’s cultural history and climate. Many recent works, including Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamiltonhave explored historical and cultural identity—and with Fellow Travelers, Rothstein says, the medium was particularly apt. “There’s a huge subtext of men not able to articulate for themselves, because they haven’t really been given language to describe their emotional, sexual specificity," he explained.

This neglected piece of queer history reflects a time when shame kept many people silent. Thankfully, historians such as Johnson are collecting stories before survivors of this generation fade away. As they uncover more tales of careers—and lives—ruined, perhaps the Lavender Scare will begin to take on more of a role in mainstream history books.

Periodic Table Discovered at Scotland's St Andrews University Could Be World's Oldest

Alan Aitken
Alan Aitken

The oldest surviving periodic table of elements in the world may have been found at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, according to the Scottish newspaper The Courier.

University researchers and international experts recently determined that the chart, which was rediscovered in a chemistry department storage area in 2014, dates back to 1885—just 16 years after Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev invented the method of sorting the elements into related groups and arranging them by increasing atomic weight.

Mendeleev’s original periodic table had 60 elements, while the modern version we use today contains 118 elements. The chart found at St Andrews is similar to Mendeleev’s second version of the table, created in 1871. It’s thought to be the only surviving table of its kind in Europe.

The periodic table soaks in a washing treatment
Richard Hawkes

The St Andrews table is written in German, and was presumably produced for German universities to use as a teaching aid, according to St Andrews chemistry professor David O’Hagan. The item itself was dated 1885, but St Andrews researcher M. Pilar Gil found a receipt showing that the university purchased the table from a German catalog in 1888. A St Andrews chemistry professor at the time likely ordered it because he wanted to have the latest teaching materials in the scientific field, even if they weren't written in English.

When university staffers first found the table in 2014, it was in “bad condition,” O’Hagan tells The Courier in the video below. The material was fragile and bits of it flaked off when it was handled. Conservators in the university's special collections department have since worked to preserve the document for posterity.

The 19th century table looks quite a bit different from its modern counterparts. Although Mendeleev laid the groundwork for the periodic table we know today, English physicist Henry Moseley improved it in 1913 by rearranging the elements by the number of protons they had rather than their atomic weight. Then, in the 1920s, Horace Deming created the boxy layout we now associate with periodic tables.

Learn more about the St Andrews discovery in the video below.

[h/t The Courier]

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