There are lots of people in the world who can’t leave a problem unsolved once they come across it. They’re the computer software tech that can’t walk away from a keyboard until the computer works right. They’re also the mall shopper that can’t walk past a puzzle store and, once inside, can’t put down whatever puzzle they happen to touch until the puzzle is complete.
The same breed of puzzle solver can also be found among the cryptographers, linguists, historians and other experts who are working to decode and translate manuscripts. Recently, the code for one of the most enigmatic and celebrated of these examples, the Voynich Manuscript, has been said to be cracked. Could the persistence of one puzzle solver have paid off? Let’s find out.
Background On The Voynich Manuscript
Dated the early 15th century, the Voynich Manuscripts is believed to have been written during the Italian Rennaisance. It was named for Wilfred Voynich, a Polish book dealer who obtained the manuscript in 1912. He was approximately the seventh known person to own the work. After his death, the manuscript was eventually donated to Yale University in 1969 where it currently remains in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. What does the manuscript look like? Visually stunning, 240 of the pages remain, some of which fold out to expand from the book’s spine. Pages contain both text and graphics in multiple colors and a gorgeous script that has entranced those who have viewed it. This video showcases just how stunning it is:
Catnip For Cryptographers and Historians
The manuscript gained a reputation for mystery even to the point that it has been connected to a number of conspiracy theories. Understandably, it has drawn multitudes of people who were looking to decipher its meaning and the difficulty of the task has only added to the allure. In addition, whoever solves it will receive their fair share of possible wealth, legendary status in code-breaking circles, and undoubted personal satisfaction. At this point, the manuscript is like catnip for cryptographers.
Efforts To Decode The Manuscript
Seasoned academics from a variety of fields, passionate amateur puzzle solvers, British Intelligence, World War II codebreakers, and even the FBI have made attempts to show the world what it says. None of these efforts have borne fruit. Recently, the code was getting closer than ever to being solved. In 2011, a Finnish businessman and self-proclaimed “prophet of God” told the world he had figured it out, but his attempt fell short. In 2014 a pair of botanical scholars believed that the illustrations of plants in the manuscript were they key to deciphering the text.
However, Gerald Cheshire, an academic from Bristol University in the UK announced that he had found the answer in just two weeks. He shared with the world that he believed the document was written in a Proto-Romance language that had been commonly used in the Medieval world but wasn’t used in official documents. According to Cheshire, the language has become obsolete but has since been replaced by the world’s current romance languages including Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese. In a media statement, Cheshire said that he was able to solve the code “with a combination of lateral thinking and ingenuity.”
So what does the manuscript say? According to Cheshire, the pages contain information on astrological readings, herbal remedies, and therapeutic bathing. It was originally written by a Dominican Nun as a reference for the current Queen of Aragon in Spain.
The Internet Responds
No surprise, the news that Cheshire had solved the Voynich Manuscript spread quickly. Countless online and real-world media sources cheered the idea that such a long-held puzzle had finally been solved. Unfortunately, almost as quickly as word got out about Cheshire’s solution, other online experts weighed in with questions. The skepticism grew to almost a fever pitch with some concerns that were admittedly hard to address.
One of the questions that skeptics posed had to do with the nature of the journal that inherently verified Cheshire’s claim by publishing it. Typically, findings are submitted to a journal in a field that is relevant to the new information presented and the findings undergo a rigorous peer review process. So, for example, findings on mathematics wouldn’t be published in a science journal. If they were submitted to a journal without expertise in the subject matter, the journal’s editorial staff is expected to reject it because they don’t have the background to vet the information properly.
Cheshire’s claim was published in a journal focused on literature rather than linguistics and many believe the journal lacked the expertise to properly stand behind the findings. Along with this, many are questioning the validity of the peer review process that Cheshire’s work underwent. In response, Cheshire broadly rejects these criticisms and defends the review process that his work went through.
Wrestling With The Truth
Once the extent of the concerns was realized, the University issued a statement acknowledging them and more extensive. But the Internet had already spread the news that Cheshire had cracked the code and it wasn’t easy to walk back the information. In this case, what happened can serve as a case study for how to handle public information about scientific discoveries going forward. As with other areas of information, more carefully managed process can help ensure the public as the most accurate facts possible—the first time—without retractions.