An unknown author of the late medieval created a mystery that has eluded the world’s best minds for half a millennium. Now, after 500 years of stumping cryptologists, one of the most enigmatic coded documents in history may at last be ready to surrender its secrets. All it took was some 21st century computing — and Google Translate.
The elusive code is contained in the Voynich Manuscript. It was written in Central Europe during the 15th century. It consists of 246 pages of bound vellum (animal skin). The author is unknown, and the book gets its name from Wilfrid M. Voynich, a Polish-American bookseller who acquired it in 1912.
What makes the book so remarkable is its contents. Its illustrations depicts a number of plants that do not match with any known species on our planet, as well as a series of what appear to be astronomical drawings. Nearly every page contains botanical, figurative, and scientific drawings, in ink of various shades of green, brown, yellow, blue, and red. The writing that apparently explains the illustrations consists of an elegant, looping script of an indecipherable code in an unknown language.
Based on the subject matter of the drawings, the contents of the manuscript falls into six sections: 1) botanicals containing drawings of 113 unidentified plant species; 2) astronomical and astrological drawings including astral charts with radiating circles, suns and moons, Zodiac symbols such Taurus, Sagittarius, and Pisces, nude females emerging from pipes or chimneys; 3) a biological section containing a myriad of drawings of miniature female nudes, most with swelled abdomens, immersed or wading in fluids and oddly interacting with interconnecting tubes and capsules; 4) an elaborate array of nine cosmological medallions, many drawn across several folded folios and depicting possible geographical forms; 5) pharmaceutical drawings of over 100 different species of medicinal herbs and roots portrayed with jars or vessels in red, blue, or green, and 6) continuous pages of text, possibly recipes, with star-like flowers marking each entry in the margins.
Attempts to decipher the text have stumped experts from the time Manuscript first appeared in documented history. The first confirmed owner was Georg Baresch, an 17th century alchemist from Prague. Baresch was apparently just as puzzled as modern scientists about this “Sphynx” that had been “taking up space uselessly in his library” for many years. A letter from Baresch references the Manuscript once being owned by Rudolph II, which, if true, would have established ownership in the 16th century. None of the owners from that date to now, have been able to make heads or tails of the strange script, leading some scholars to suggest that the whole thing may be some elaborate hoax. Several 20th centuries scholars determined that the statistical analysis of the text shows too many doubled and tripled words to be a legitimate document.
Others dispute the hoax theory and maintain that the text is too complex to be fake. They also point out that the cost and complexity of creating such a book 500 years ago would make it a very costly hoax, indeed.
After countless experts — including Alan Turing, who broke the Nazi Enigma code — have tried and given up on unlocking the Manuscript’s mysteries, a team of Canadian codebreakers decided to take up the task.
In a study published in Transactions of the Association for Computational Linguistics, researchers Bradley Hauer and Grzegorz Kondrak report how they used an algorithm to attempt to decode the text. They note the complexity of such a task, saying it is “the most challenging type of a decipherment problem” because it isn’t just the code that is unknown — we also do not know what language to use.
The researchers determined that the code likely represents a vowel-less alphagram. In other words, the original author took a word, removed all the vowels, and rearranged the remaining letters in alphabetical order. Using this approach, in English, commonplace, would be written as cclmmnp.
With this assumption, they trained an algorithm to decipher 380 different-language translations of the United Nations “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” They refined the algorithm until it had a 97 percent success rate.
Once this task was complete, the researchers turned their attention tot he Voynich Manuscript. After enter text from the first ten pages, they waited breathlessly for the computer’s analysis. The result? The algorithm found that 80 percent of the encoded words appeared to be written in Hebrew.
Now that they knew the language, they needed to figure out what the coded words actually meant. When a native Hebrew speaker was unable to make sense of the words, the researchers turned to another expert: Google Translate. Before your eyebrows go up too far about their choice of translators, consider how Google Translate works. It analyzes hundreds of millions of documents that have been translated by humans and applies a statistical application to translate groups of words, rather than word-by-word.
With a little help from Google Translate, the first sentence showed up on the computer monitor: “She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.” Granted, it’s nothing like, “Aliens are real, and they can be found at….” Nevertheless, it at least makes some sense.
The researchers also turned to the section of the Manuscript that appears to describe plants. A 72-word section, when fed into the algorithm, spit out words such as farmer, light, air, and fire — all of which make sense in the context of the section.
Despite this promising start, some problems still remain. For one thing, the computer has thus far only been able to connect 80 percent of the text with Hebrew. That means 20 percent is from another language or languages yet to be determined. Even knowing the 80 percent is in Hebrew leaves a lot to be desired, since the original author would have been using medieval Hebrew, with different meanings than the modern language.
Not all cryptologists are convinced, and much more work remains to be done before we learn if the mysterious Voynich Manuscript will finally give up its secrets.
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