Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Voynich Manuscript Carbon Dated

Of all the unexplainable "what does it mean? how did it get here?" baffling books out there - from the Oera Linda to anything by Thomas DeQuincey - none has fascinated me more than the Voynich Manuscript. Written in a seemingly alien language that no man has ever been able to decipher, it is filled with copious illustrations that make about as much sense as the text; that is to say, none whatsoever. It is named after Polish revolutionary and bibliophile Wilfried Voynich, who acquired it in Italy in 1912 and gave it its first public presentation in 1915.

The Voynich Manuscript has finally been definitively carbon-dated by University of Arizona researchers and the verdict is: it dates back to the early 15th century, which means the book is a century older than scholars had previously thought.

What does this tell us about about the book that we didn't already know? Well, for one, it rules out some people's conspiracy theories that Voynich cooked up the book himself. It also strikes Roger "Doctor Mirabilis" Bacon off the list of contenders for the book's authorship, and he had been a leading theory among some in academia.

According to Wikipedia: "The earliest confirmed owner of the Voynich manuscript was Georg Baresch, an obscure alchemist who lived in Prague in the early 17th century. Baresch apparently was just as puzzled as we are today about this "Sphynx" that had been "taking up space uselessly in his library" for many years."

And Live Science says, rather self-contradictingly: "While knowing the date of the book helps put one of the pieces of that puzzle in place, it's possible its complete meaning will never be deciphered. The key to the book's code could have been destroyed long ago, making it impossible to crack. The latest computer programs and cryptographers can't decipher its meaning, but there is hope that future technologies could crack this mystery book's code, the researchers said."

One of the aspects of the text that intrigues me most is that the flow of its quill-penned lettering suggests the author wrote at a very even pace, just as any skilled calligrapher would writing in a normal language. This implies that the words came naturally to the writer, rather than pausing to contrive (or if encoding, to calculate) these characters.

Wikipedia again:

The text consists of over 170,000 discrete glyphs, usually separated from each other by narrow gaps. Most of the glyphs are written with one or two simple pen strokes. While there is some dispute as to whether certain glyphs are distinct or not, an alphabet with 20–30 glyphs would account for virtually all of the text; the exceptions are a few dozen rarer characters that occur only once or twice each.

Statistical analysis of the text reveals patterns similar to those of natural languages. For instance, the word entropy (about 10 bits per word) is similar to that of English or Latin texts. Some words occur only in certain sections, or in only a few pages; others occur throughout the manuscript.

On the other hand, the Voynich manuscript's "language" is quite unlike European languages in several aspects. Firstly, there are practically no words comprising more than ten glyphs, yet there are also few one- or two-letter words. The distribution of letters within words is also rather peculiar: some characters only occur at the beginning of a word, some only at the end, and some always in the middle section.

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