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Sunday, July 4, 2010

a Survey of the Membership of the American Astronomical Society Concerning the UFO Phenomenon

Report on a Survey of the Membership of the American Astronomical Society Concerning the UFO Phenomenon - Summary
Peter Sturrock, Stanford University

Summary: Refereed journals, to which scientists turn for their reliable information, carry virtually no information on the UFO problem. Does this imply that scientists have no views and no thoughts on the subject, or that all scientists consider it insignificant? Does it imply that scientists have no reports to submit comparable with UFO reports published in newspapers and popular books? The purpose of this survey is to answer these questions.

Peter A. Sturrock ,  Ph.D.
author's bio

Refereed journals, to which scientists turn for their reliable information, carry virtually no information on the UFO problem. Does this imply that scientists have no views and no thoughts on the subject, or that all scientists consider it insignificant? Does it imply that scientists have no reports to submit comparable with UFO reports published in newspapers and popular books? The purpose of this survey is to answer these questions.

Of 2,611 questionnaires mailed to members of the American Astronomical Society, 1,356 were returned, 34 anonymously. Only two members offered to waive anonymity. These facts and many comments confirm that the UFO problem is a sensitive issue for most scientists. Nevertheless, only a few (13) respondents made critical remarks about the subject or the survey; 50 made encouraging statements, 34 offered to help, and 7 indicated that they are actively studying the problem.

Each respondent was asked to state his opinion on whether the UFO problem deserves scientific study: 23% replied "certainly", 30% "probably", 27% "possibly", 17% "probably not", and 3% "certainly not", which represents a positive attitude among 53% of the respondents, as against a negative attitude among 20%. Analysis of the returns shows that older scientists are markedly more negative to the problem than are younger scientists. One also finds that opinions correlate strongly with time spent reading about the subject. The fraction of respondents who think that the subject certainly or probably deserves scientific study rises from 29%, among those who have spent less than one hour, to 68% among those who have spent more than 365 hours in such reading. It appears that popular books and publications by established scientists exert a positive influence on scientists' opinions, whereas newspaper and magazine articles exert negligible influence.

Respondents were asked to express their views on possible causes of UFO reports by assigning "prior probabilities" to four "conventional" causes [(a) a hoax, (b) a familiar phenomenon or device, (c) an unfamiliar natural phenomenon, and (d) an unfamiliar terrestrial device] and four "unconventional" causes [(e) an unknown natural phenomenon, (f) an alien device, (g) some specifiable other cause, and (h) some unspecifiable other cause]. There was a very wide spread of opinions on this issue. Averaging all returns gives the values: (a) .12, (b) .22, (c) .23, (d) .21, (e) .09, (f) .03, (g) .07. This average response is therefore quite open-minded, although many individual responses are not. Older people tend to give more credence to the possibility of a hoax and less to unconventional possibilities. By contrast, those who have studied the subject extensively attach less weight to the possibility of a hoax and greater weight to the unconventional possibilities.

Over 80% of respondents expressed a willingness to contribute to the resolution of the UFO problem if they could see a way to do so but, of those expressing this interest, only 13% could see a way. This is a notable consensus which may encapsulate the dilemma which this problem presents to scientists. Those who have studied the subject are more willing to help and more likely to see a way to help.

Most respondents consider that meteorology, psychology, astronomy/astrophysics and physics have relevance to the UFO problem and some consider that aeronautical engineering and sociology may also be relevant. Most respondents (75%) would like to obtain more information on the subject, but they express a strong preference for getting it from scientific journals rather than from books or lectures.

The returns identified 62 respondents who had witnessed or obtained an instrumental record of an event which they could not identify and which they thought might be related to the UFO phenomenon. The total number of events reported was larger (65) since some respondents reported more than one event. In addition, ten _identified_ strange observations were mentioned, four investigations were described (including one detailed study of ground traces), and attention was drawn to a few strange events described in the scientific literature. It was found that these 62 respondents have spent longer than average studying the UFO problem, that they are more positive in their assessment of the scientific importance of the problem, and that they tend to be more open-minded about unconventional explanations. Only 18 (about 30%) of these respondents indicated that they had previously reported their observations; seven to the Air Force, Navy or NORAD, one to the police, two to airport authorities, seven to other scientists, and one to a newspaper.

Sixty-three percent (63%) of those reporting events were night-sky observers, as against 50% of respondents who did not report events. Thirty-six (36) of the events comprised lights seen in the sky at night. Twelve (12) were of point lights which were more or less puzzling; four (4) were of formations of lights; and four (4) were of diffuse lights. Three respondents independently described what appeared to be a searchlight playing on a cloud when there were no clouds in the sky. Four described disk-like objects, and five described objects with different shapes. Three cases concerned objects which appeared to emit smaller objects or "sparks." One case described apparent interference with an automobile electrical system (as did also a daylight case).

There were sixteen accounts of strange objects seen by day. Five were of small objects, seven were of disk-shaped objects, and four described other miscellaneous observations.

Seven respondents described photographic records of strange phenomena, and three were kind enough to provide me with copies of the photographs or film. (With help, I was able to make plausible interpretations of two of these.) One respondent recalled a radar observation he had made, another described two strange radio records, and a third described puzzling records obtained by a satellite tracking station.

This study leads to the following answers to the questions initially posed. To judge from this survey of the membership of the American Astronomical Society, it appears that:

(a) scientists have thoughts and views but no answers concerning the UFO problem;

(b) Although there is no consensus, more scientists are of the opinion that the problem certainly or probably deserves scientific study than are of the opinion that it certainly or probably does not;

and (c) a small fraction (of order 5%) are likely to report varied and puzzling observations, not unlike so-called "UFO reports" made by the general public. As is the case with reports from the public, many may be unusual observations of familiar objects, but some seem to be definitely strange.

These results are consistent with the findings of an earlier but more limited survey of members of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (Sturrock, 1974b), except that the opinions of astronomers (expressed in 1975) concerning the significance of the UFO problem were more positive than were the views of aeronautical engineers (expressed in 1973).

Cities and Accomplishment

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Published on The Brussels Journal (http://www.brusselsjournal.com)

Cities and Accomplishment

Created 2010-06-22 16:21
In several essays at the Gates of Vienna blog and elsewhere I have dealt with the subject of genetic intelligence measured in IQ, inspired by Michael H. Hart’s groundbreaking and very politically incorrect biohistory book Understanding Human History. Many people consider this topic to be “racist” and therefore taboo, but I will write about anything that I deem to be practically and scientifically relevant. On the other hand, there are quite a few things that IQ does not fully explain. We will look at a few of them here, related to geography, population density and level of urbanization. The single most important thing that IQ does not explain is why the scientific Revolution took place among Europeans, not among northeast Asians who have at least as high average IQ as whites. I will leave that issue for a separate essay.

Australia’s landmass of 7.6 million square kilometers is comparable in size to all mainland states in the USA minus Alaska, roughly eight million km2, but Australia has about 22 million inhabitants whereas the USA has over 300 millions. Both countries have similar histories in the sense that during the European colonial period, white settlers took over the land and built technologically sophisticated societies there, yet only one of them became a leading world power. This is because much of Australia and its water except for the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland in the northeast is desert. The soil is poor and not nutritious. Most of the population is settled along the coast in the south and east, from Adelaide via Melbourne and Sydney to Brisbane. Simply put: Australia’s geology and ecology cannot sustain anywhere near the number of people we find in the USA. In this case, geology and geography matter a great deal. Australia is also located far away from major trading regions elsewhere. Thanks to modern transportation and communications technology, this drawback is less serious than it used to be, but it is still a significant factor shaping the country’s economic life.
At the other extreme, Greenland, the world’s largest island, is more than half of the size of the USA at 2,175,600 km2, but with merely 57,000 or so inhabitants it has the lowest population density on Earth (excluding Antarctica, which is populated only by a few scientists) at 0.026 people per square kilometers. This is because cold and inhospitable Greenland is largely covered by ice and glaciers. By contrast, the most densely populated areas in the world are Macau in China and Monaco in Europe at 18,534 and 16,923 inhabitants/ km2, respectively.
Other geographical factors that are of great significance for the evolution of a society are waterways, navigable rivers and access to the major oceans. No serious historian could ever properly write the histories of Britain or Japan without taking their island locations into account as a major factor in its own right. Several scholars have pointed out that the more rugged shape and topography of Europe compared to China is one of the reasons why China was unified politically earlier than Europe, an idea that deserves serious consideration. The Roman Empire at its height controlled only about half of Europe, not the far north and east.
Many events can best be explained by a combination of IQ and other factors. The Portuguese exploration of the African coast in the mid-1400s started the global Western European expansion. This exploration required a certain minimum IQ, which European nations had but sub-Saharan Africans did not have. This explains why Europeans travelled to Africa yet Nigerians didn’t discover Europe, but it does not explain why the Chinese didn’t explore the Atlantic, which they may have had the technological know-how to do if they wanted to.
The Europeans possessed a number of cultural and commercial push-and pull factors such as the drive to find new Christian converts and the desire to gain access to the lucrative spice trade of the Indian Ocean without Muslim middlemen. Asians did not possess a similar desire to go to Europe. Yet IQ does not predict which European nation would start this process. There is little reason to believe that the Portuguese had higher average IQ than the Poles, the Hungarians or the Finns. What Portugal did have was a favorable location next to the Atlantic Ocean and Africa which made it ideally situated to undertake long expeditions. All of the major European colonial powers were located in the far west, with access to the major oceans.
This does not mean that water access is an absolute necessity; Switzerland provides us with an important counterexample of a mountainous and completely landlocked country that has managed to create and sustain a very high economic, technological and scientific level. Nevertheless, sea access has normally constituted a considerable advantage. The only Eastern European country capable of projecting power far outside of Europe proper was Russia.
While many parts of Western Europe developed a dynamic and politically important population of urban traders, the lands in the eastern half of the continent suffered from less urbanization and more social restrictions, with less and less economic freedom the further east you moved toward Asia. These differences grew with the establishment of the Atlantic maritime economy and the Industrial Revolution. By the year 1700, the population in the whole of Eastern Europe was roughly equal to that of France alone; the only really significant urban markets in East-Central Europe were Constantinople, Vienna, Prague and Warsaw.
Chattel slavery within Europe was abolished in the post-Roman era, one of Christianity’s most positive contributions. Yet reality is not so simple that all those who were not slaves were free men who could carry arms and had freedom of movement. Serfdom at its most repressive constituted little more than modified slavery, and it intensified in Eastern Europe just as it declined in Western Europe. Capitalism, too, was a Western European invention.
The Middle Ages witnessed the rise of the specifically European, above all Western European, phenomenon of the semi-autonomous city, organized and known as commune. Stadtluft macht frei ran the medieval European dictum – city air makes one free. When the count of Flanders tried to reclaim a runaway serf whom he ran across in the market of Bruges, the bourgeois drove him out of the city. Cities consequently became poles of attraction and places of refuge. Migration to urban areas improved the income and status of the migrants and their families, but not their health. Cities were dirty and vulnerable to crowd diseases, European ones at least as much as some Asian cities. It was only in-migration that sustained the numbers of urban dwellers. Serf emancipation in Western Europe was directly linked to franchised villages and urban communes and to the density and proximity of these gateways.
Where cities and towns were few and less free, as was the case in much of Eastern Europe, serfdom persisted and worsened. Between 1400 and 1650, the social and legal conditions of peasants in the eastern half of Europe declined, as many free farmers lost their freedom. Russian, Polish and other lords seized more land for their own estates and demanded ever more unpaid serf labor. The daily life of peasants was hard everywhere, but the visibly harsher social conditions in the East were commented upon by Western European travelers.
The political power of peasants in Eastern Europe was weaker than in the West. Many serfs were bound to their lords in hereditary service and had to do much forced labor without pay. Russian serf families were regularly sold with or without land, and serfdom was abolished in Russia as late as in 1861. In Western Europe, free farmers and townsmen were the natural enemies of the landed aristocracy and would often support the crown in its struggles with local seigneurs. David S. Landes explains in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations:
“European rulers and enterprising lords who sought to grow revenues in this manner had to attract participants by the grant of franchises, freedoms, and privileges – in short, by making deals. They had to persuade them to come. (That was not the way in China, where rulers moved thousands and tens of thousands of human cattle and planted them on the soil, the better to grow things.) These exemptions from material burdens and grants of economic privilege, moreover, often led to political concessions and self-government. Here the initiative came from below, and this too was an essentially European pattern. Implicit in it was a sense of rights and contract – the right to negotiate as well as petition – with gains to the freedom and security of economic activity.”
City-states have been among the most dynamic entities in history, from ancient Mesopotamia and Greece to Renaissance Italy; their Achilles’ heel is that they are often too small to effectively defend themselves against aggression from larger political entities. They enjoyed greater success when they formed alliances, such as the medieval Hansa in northern Europe.
Science is first and foremost the creation of urban, literate cultures. Scandinavians produced the first significant scientific figures during the Renaissance period, and the likelihood of this happening was greatest in the region that was closest to the European mainstream and had the highest level of urbanization. This figure did emerge in the shape of the astronomer Tycho Brahe, who came from the Kingdom of Denmark, born in southern Sweden. With a roughly similar IQ and most other things being equal, the rate of excellence within the Nordic countries should be highest in Denmark and southern Sweden and slightly lower in more sparsely populated Norway and Finland. In the latter countries, it should be highest in urban regions such as the Helsinki area and the southwest coast of Finland and the Oslo Fjord region and partly Bergen in Norway. This hypothesis corresponds well with observed reality. For the same reason, many of the great accomplishments in Scotland took place in the densely populated Central Lowlands, which includes the cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee.
People with high intelligence need a chance to realize their potential, which they generally won’t have if they are uneducated farmers living at a near-subsistence level. Isaac Newton came from a family of English farmers, but his educated uncle recognized the boy’s talent and arranged for him to be sent to the university. Had it not been for this, Newton would not have been able to develop his theory of gravity. This illustrates the cluster effect: Individuals with great natural abilities need access to other people with high intelligence for intellectual stimulation, competition and exchange of ideas. A sheep herder sitting on an isolated mountain top with an IQ of 150 will no doubt be an extremely clever sheep herder, but not a world-class scientist. The cluster effect is slightly less important today than it was in the past since modern technology has made it easier to communicate with people in other places and countries without being physically close to them, but having access to a stimulating environment with intelligent people is still a tremendous advantage. Talent begets more talent.
Cities were not only where most of the significant figures worked, but also where many of them were born and raised. Obviously, they are important because many people live there, yet even if we adjust for population size and measure accomplishments per capita or per thousand individuals, cities still predominate over their rural surroundings. This does of course not imply that all large European cities were equally dynamic in all eras. Paris was far more dominant in French cultural life than any German city ever has been in German cultural life.
Germany has produced unusually many significant figures from scattered places, but cities were clearly relevant there as well. Cities attract both human and financial capital and often have a well-developed infrastructure of libraries and meeting places for exchanges of new ideas and impulses. They can be industrial, political or financial centers, but having a leading university or educational institution is particularly important for the rate of accomplishment.
According to Charles Murray’s modern classic Human Accomplishment, the Big Three in accomplishments are Britain, France and Germany, with Italy as number four. Significantly after the first four we find the region formerly known as Austro-Hungary plus Russia and the Netherlands, followed by Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, the Balkans, Norway, Portugal and Finland. Britain, France, Germany and Italy combined account for 72 percent of all the significant figures in the arts and sciences from 1400-1950. If we break down the regions and cities, we find that great accomplishment was primarily concentrated in the European core, defined as Britain from the Scottish Lowlands with most of England and parts of Wales, southern Scandinavia, the northern and eastern regions of France including Paris, the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Germany, parts of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and last, but not least, the northern half of the Italian Peninsula including Rome.
Certain regions stand out even within the Western European core, for instance Tuscany in northern Italy and southeast England in Britain. More than one hundred European cities or towns qualified for their own code in Human Accomplishment: In Austria, Graz and Salzburg made the list in addition to the capital Vienna. In present-day Belgium: Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels, Ghent, Ixelles, Jehay-Bodegnée, Liège, Louvain (Leuven), Namur, Saint-Amand and Tournai. In Britain and Ireland: Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast and Dublin. In the Czech Republic, Prague and Brno; in Denmark, Copenhagen and Århus. In France: Besançon, Bordeaux, Grenoble, Le Havre, Lille, Lyon, Marseilles, Metz, Montpellier, Nancy, Paris, Rouen, Strasbourg, Tours and Valenciennes. In Finland, the capital Helsinki.
In Germany: Augsburg, Berlin, Bonn, Breslau (situated on the River Oder, currently known as Wrocław in south-western Poland), Cologne, Danzig (now Gdansk on the Baltic coast of northern Poland), Darmstadt, Dresden, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt-am-Main, Freiberg, Göttingen, Halle, Hamburg, Königsberg (after World War II known as the Russian city of Kaliningrad), Leipzig, Lübeck, Magdeburg, Mannheim, Munich, Nuremberg, Stuttgart, Tübingen, Wittenberg and Würzburg. As examples such as Breslau, Danzig and Königsberg remind us, certain areas and cities have belonged to different countries at different times, following wars and the rising or declining fortunes of the various European nations. Germans exerted considerable cultural influence in East-Central Europe for many centuries. The southern coast of the Baltic Sea was a region of mixed Germanic, Slavic and Baltic influence; Copernicus probably spoke fluent German as well as Polish. Poland in turn went from being one of the largest states in Europe to non-existence as a political entity by the early nineteenth century.
In Greece we find Athens and in Hungary, Budapest. In Italy the most important cities were Bologna, Brescia, Cremona, Ferrara, Naples, Padua, Palermo, Parma, Piacenza, Pisa, Rome, Siena, Turin, Venice, Verona and Vicenza. The centers in sparsely populated Norway were the cities of Bergen and Oslo; in the very densely populated Netherlands they were Amsterdam, Delft, Haarlem, The Hague (Den Haag), Leiden, Rotterdam and Utrecht. In Poland, the previous capital city, Kraków and the present one, Warsaw. In Portugal, Lisbon. In the Russian Empire, Kiev (in the Ukraine), Moscow, Riga (the capital of Latvia), Saint Petersburg, Tallinn (the capital of Estonia), Vilnius (the capital of Lithuania) and finally Smolensk on the Dnieper River in far western Russia. In Sweden, Stockholm and the university town of Uppsala. In Spain: Barcelona, Cordoba, Granada, Madrid, Seville and Valladolid. Among the towns in dynamic Switzerland, Basel, Geneva and Zürich led the way.
The general level of education rose steadily in the Western world throughout the modern era. In Belgium and the Netherlands, the number of university students rose 3.5 times faster than the population from 1850-1900 and 8.6 times faster from 1900-1950. In France, the university population rose 48 times faster than the increase in population from 1900 to 1950. Urbanization has been one of the most pronounced hallmarks of industrial civilization, from the nineteenth until the early twenty-first century. There was a powerful trend of urbanization of the world’s population throughout the twentieth century which exceeded the rapid increase in the total global population. As of 2010 it has been projected that the majority of the world’s population, for the first time in the history of mankind, live in urban areas. At the same time, the number of university students has gone up sharply, both in absolute and in relative terms.
After 1950 the percentage of Western youths taking higher education continued to rise, especially from the 1960s, 70s and 80s onward when women joined in greater numbers, to the point of numerically dominating many university campuses. In short, the global number of urban, literate people with higher education has never been higher than after 1950, yet Charles Murray claims that the rate of great human accomplishment stagnated or declined during this same period. This means either that Murray is wrong in this regard or that the most recent increase in towns and higher education hasn’t paid off as well as the previous ones did.
Perhaps we had reached a point at the mid-twentieth century where most of the people with very high IQs in the West already took higher education, whereas those who joined later slightly lowered the average IQ of those with a university degree. Critics claim that too many people spend years of their lives at higher education, even those who do not strictly speaking need it. Society needs truck drivers, yet truck drivers do not normally need a master’s degree in English literature to be competent at their job. Another problem is the proliferation of Marxist groups in campuses. Many Western university students these days will come out with a warped and twisted view of the world and of their own civilization, which is not productive.
Also, while some major cities such as Berlin, Shanghai, Seoul or Tokyo have reached a high level of technological and economic sophistication, they are all predominately populated by high-IQ groups. By contrast, Mexico City is one of the largest cities on the planet, yet this fact hasn’t made Mexico a leading force in science or innovation. Nineteenth century London had poor and dirty quarters at the same time as it was arguably the most dynamic and innovative place in the world, but it is possible to argue that the growth of megacities in poorer countries in recent years has given rise to a new type of dysfunctional urban areas with massive slums.


Voynich-Notes On Writing Systems

The Voynich Manuscript Part 8 : Some Notes On Writing Systems
http://www.scientificblogging.com/chatter_box/blog/voynich_manuscript_part_8_some_notes_writing_systems

Since I wrote Part 7 of this occasional series of articles about the Voynich manuscript I have been  heavily engaged in writing programs to analyse the Voynich text.  This will take quite a bit more time, as it requires the creation - and debugging1 - of multiple programs to test each linguistic theory component from various perspectives.  For example, I propose the theory that the Voynich symbols - I prefer to call them glyphs - are non-obvious representations of sounds and do not necessarily comprise a simple alphabet.

The problem of reading the VM script is greatly complicated by the fact that the set of VM glyphs is a set of arbitrarily chosen symbols used to represent sounds or ideas.  It is not just the VM glyph set, but every set of writing symbols that is arbitrary.  There is no universal rule by virtue of which a symbol is required to correspond with a given sound or idea in any language whatsoever.  The symbology in all writing systems may have originated in a desire to have a logical correspondence between a symbol and some physical entity, but that correspondence has long since been lost in developed writing systems.  Every alphabet, syllabary, abjad, abugida, consonantary, futhark; every phonographic or logographic writing system uses arbitrary symbols.

The fact of an arbitrary choice on the part of the inventor of the VM glyphs means that no symbol need actually represent the same sound or idea as any similar symbol in another written language.  Any visual resemblance should be treated with caution; the resemblance is probably coincidental.  For example, a closed double-loop 'a' might be written as '8', and the single-loop symbol which looks like an 'a' in such case might represent 'd'.  Something that resembles iiiv may represent mu, niv, inus, ivus.  There are countless other possibilities.  There are so many symbol permutations that simple mathematical analysis suffers from the problem of geometric increases in program running time.

I refer to the Voynich symbols as glyphs so as to make clear the fact that, in my opinion, any Voynich symbol may represent any phoneme or phonemes. Any VM glyph may thus be represented by one or more  Latin style letters.  It is only by in-depth analysis of the patterns of word and glyph usage in the entire VM that we have any hope of discovering an unambiguous pattern of language.   I am conducting such an analysis at present and am making no assumptions about the underlying language.

A Note Of Caution
It is tempting to assign computer codes to the Voynich glyphs and then see patterns in the transcript.  Almost any ASCII transcription system will produce an appearance of systematic pattern in the transcript.  This is an emergent property of the transcription method and it provides no worthwhile insight into the actual underlying language of the VM.   The EVA set of ASCII representations of Voynich glyphs is useful for generating a computer-readable transcript.  However, the appearance of 'readability' in that transcript is probably deceptive.  Any 'vowel-consonant' sequences in the transcript are almost certainly an artifact of transcription, since the EVA codes were chosen specifically to make the transcript 'human readable'.

The EVA alphabet was designed in the framework of a more recent transcription effort. It is analytical, like Frogguy, but it uses only lower-case alphabetical characters. These have also been chosen in such a way that the transcribed text is almost pronouncible.

Source: Voynich.nu

I will return to the topic of the glyphs when I have some results to report.

Continued in The Voynich Manuscript Part 9 : An Amateur's Work?


[1] Just as the author is his or her own worst proofreader, so the programmer is his or her own worst debugger.  I work entirely alone as author and programmer, so I get a double dose of this.  The odd typo in a blog doesn't matter, but a single typo in a program can so distort the output as to prevent replication of results by another researcher.  I would very much like to avoid that problem, hence the desire not to rush my analysis of the VM text.

Voynich-Baghdad

 The Voynich Manuscript part 4 : Not So Mysterious ?

The Voynich manuscript was written in an as yet unreadable script.  It is named after Wilfrid Voynich, who acquired it as a dealer in 1912 from the library of Villa Mondragone, a Jesuit college in Frascati, Italy.  It is now in the care of Yale Library.

In my previous articles on Yale Library's Beinebecke MS 408 I focused on its background.  I am now going to discuss some basic possibilities about its unusual script.  I am still working on an attempt to transcribe the text into modern English.  If I succeed, my readers here at scientificblogging will be the first to know.

In my previous articles I suggested that it is a complete waste of time to try to crack a code, or read a strange script, without first obtaining some background information.  In Part #1  I gave some background information about Wilfred and Ethel Voynich.  I concluded that Wilfrid Voynich had no incentive to fake the manuscript.  In part 2: Dating An Enigma  I suggested that, from examination of some of the facts, the manuscript may date to around 1350.  In  Part #3  I gave more background information and suggested that the manuscript, when written, was perhaps intended as a genuine materia medica, a physician's recipe book.  I also suggested that it may have been written by a woman as a medieval 'midwifery manual'.

I now give my reasons for believing that the manuscript is not written in code, but in an odd script.  The underlying language will almost certainly be found to be medieval vulgate Latin.

Oddness Analysed

The first thing that strikes anyone on seeing MS 408 for the first time is its overall oddness.  Nothing seems to make sense.  Quite apart from the script, which matches no known alphabet, the pictures seem to be just a fantasy.  Nobody has, as yet, positively identified even a single plant from its picture.

In medieval times, a physician would carry a materia medica, for three reasons I suggest.  Firstly, ownership of such a book was in itself a mark of erudition, a medieval equivalent of a degree or a license to practice medicine.  Secondly, the book could be shown to the - presumably illiterate - patient to illustrate some points about illness or medicine.  Thirdly, the physician could consult the book for recipes and ingredients rather than memorize them.

I suggest that this particular materia medica would have served those purposes well enough and would not have appeared fanciful to a majority of people when it was written.  Per contra, it would have seemed to be little out of the ordinary.  I suggest that MS 408 contains a synthesis of  ideas and beliefs know to most people in medieval England, France and neighbouring countries.  Those ideas and beliefs were transmitted across the known world an across the centuries, losing much information in the process.  It is not just in language, but also in art that we can see how ideas change and can be corrupted through the years and centuries.

In the Voynich ms is a fold-out which is often described as the 'rosettes' page.  It looks very mysterious to us at first. 

I suggest that any average British person of about the year 1350 would recognise it immediately for what it purported to be when drawn: a map of Baghdad.  In the top left and bottom right are faint images of the sun - a convention in map-making for showing east and west.  My suggestion of Baghdad, and the orientation, are supported by clues in the centre panel.

The onion domes could be representative of any country influenced by Islam.  But the only circular city recorded in medieval times, as far as I can discover, is Baghdad.  This Voynich panel fits a description of early Baghdad in 'History of Baghdad' by al-Khatib al-Baghdadi.  The city was built to a circular plan by Abu Ja'far.  Later, Al-Mansur built a surrounding wall with four gates.  He added two walls, the inner wall being higher than the middle wall.  Between the walls were two fasils, empty defensive areas.

There were 18 towers between each gate.  The artist shows these as clusters of 6.  One wall had an extra tower - shown here as an extra cluster of 6.  The four gates at the north, south, east and west were domed.  There was a great dome in the city, a major landmark for about 180 years, which collapsed due to heavy rain about 941 CE.  Baghdad was sacked and burned in 1258.

There were defensive moats and ditches.  The central palace was noted for its fine draperies.  In the top left panel is a tower.  This has been described by some observers as being 'in a hole'.  I suggest that the inexpert drawing leads to an optical illusion: the representation is of a tower on a mound.  There was such a tower in the fields outside medieval Baghdad.


I suggest that acceptance of the Baghdad theory does not automatically mean that any part of the Voynich script is Arabic or any related language.  My initial assessment is that it is mainly Latin, with influences from other European languages.  It was most probably written in England.  There are two proofs that Baghdad was famed in England long before the Voynich ms came to be compiled.


Gold imitation dinar of Offa, King of Mercia, England, 773 - 796
Image courtesy of British Museum.

This coin was made for King Offa in imitation of a dinar of Al-Mansur, Caliph of Baghdad!

In medieval England the story of Loris and Blanchefleur was very popular between about 1200 and 1350.  It is a typical European 'take' on a story of a man entering the sultan's harem by subterfuge.  It is a European adaptation of a story from the Arabian Nights.  From knowing this story, and from travelers' tales, the average British peasant would have heard of Baghdad, its strange onion domes, its baths and its library - called the House of Wisdom.  It is said that at the sack of Baghdad, the waters of the Tigris ran black with the ink from the books dumped into it.

Now imagine a traveling physician or midwife in medieval England carrying the Voynich ms.  There are many pictures of herbs, an apothecary section dealing with leaf and root preparations and aromatherapy, a balneology section and an astrological section charting the best times for conception and birth.  This 'proof' that the bearer had studied medicine at the House of Wisdom in Baghdad and that they had once attended the Caliph's harem would surely increase the client fees payable!

In my next article I briefly discuss the evolution of the materia medica from its source via Europe and from its source via the islamic countries.  I also show further information suggesting that the 'rosettes' part describes places and features from medieval Baghdad. The wierdness of the plants, I suggest, is a further clue pointing to the likelihood that the language beneath the Voynich text is medieval Latin.

Continued in The Voynich Manuscript part 5 : The Baghdad Connection
The Voynich Manuscript part 5 : The Baghdad Connection

The most obviously strange feature of the Voynich manuscript is its unknown script.  Quite simply put, the script cannot plausibly be shown to be similar to, or derived from, any known script, ancient or modern.  As a linguist I am naturally intrigued by this.  As a I have repeatedly stated in this series of Voynich articles  , it is futile to try to read an unknown script in an unknown language without first finding as many clues to the underlying language as possible.  Seeking clues related to the herbal section of the MS I found a Baghdad connection.  This led me to wonder if the central panel on the 'rosettes' page might represent Baghdad.  That was the subject of my previous Voynich article.  There are more connections, I suggest.

As I have stated in my articles on A Science Of Human Language and A Brief History of the English Language, languages evolve.  All languages, whether written or spoken, absorb features from other languages in some proportion to geographical separation.  The most striking example of this is Japanese, which uses Chinese characters as part of its writing system but contained few European words until the beginning of the 20th century.

Knowledge behaves much like language in this respect.  During a period roughly between 900 and 1300 CE there was a 'knowledge gap' in most of Europe.  During that period many original Greek texts were lost, and knowledge of Greek faded.  Manuscripts were copied by hand.  Surviving manuscripts show that the copying was done carefully in the case of the Bible, less carefully in the case of secular documents.

For all of the care taken with the Bible, distortions were introduced.  In the case of other documents the distortions are glaringly obvious to modern researchers.  The specific case of the materia medica of Dioscorides, 40-90 CE, is a classic example.  The original work comprised five volumes.  The herbal section identified many plants by characteristics and by common names, including foreign names.  The original materia medica was not illustrated.

Over the years Dioscorides works were translated across many languages.  Illustrated versions appeared, the pictures at first being based on the translator's best guess as to the plant described.  Succeeding translators and copyists produced illustration based on a mixture of their own knowledge and beliefs, prior works and best guesses. Whilst the materia medica was a careful production in the Islamic world it had become degenerate and based on much fantasy in Western Europe.

Manuscripts do not survive unless carefully stored and handled.  Down through the centuries many manuscripts have been subjected to careless storage and handling, re-use as palimpsests, or deliberate destruction by religious zealots, conquerors and even librarians1


"The basis of the model is that manuscripts are like organisms," said John L. Cisne, a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. "A manuscript is going to behave just like an individual in a population. It can divide and reproduce or it can die."

National Geographic.

Surviving variants of the materia medica range from the merely inaccurate to the wildly fanciful.  It should come as no surprise that the Voynich plants appear most odd to modern eyes. I suggest that it is a copy of a copy of a series of copies across a time-span of about 1200 years.  The knowledge and myth in Dioscorides materia medica spread from Greece across Europe.  It spread through the Islamic world and back to Europe via Spain, Italy and Constantinople.  Along that journey through time and space there were many losses and additions

Until it was sacked by Mongols in 1258, Baghdad was a widely renowned centre of learning, with a library and an observatory.  Contemporary reports of the number of public baths in medieval Baghdad vary from 2,000 to 10,000.  The only reasonable course is to accept that Baghdad was famous for having enough public baths to meet the needs of its population and visitors, especially during the Hajj season.

Travellers reports indicate that the baths had separate facilities or times for men and women.  In the baths, Christians had to show a cross and Jews a ring as a symbol of their dhimmi (non-islamic) status.  Elsewhere, Jews wore a specific kind of headgear, the pilleus cornutus.  Taken literally, that might seem to indicate a conical hat.  In fact, the hat was round with a central point or 'pimple' which varied in length with fashions.


In the history of engineering, medieval Baghdad's most famous son was Al-Jazari, who wrote a treatise on mechanical engineering towards the end of the 12th century.  He was famous in his own lifetime as an ingenious hydraulic engineer.  In the regions of the Tigris and Euphrates the Romans had constructed canals for irrigation.  Under the caliphate of Baghdad these canals were extensively improved.  Waterwheels of various kinds were used to pump water up into aqueducts.  The two most unusual types of waterwheel were mounted directly in the river, one type in the central pier of a bridge, the other on ships moored in the river.


Al-Jaziri invented many automatic mechanisms for the control of water flow.  Most strikingly, he built a water-powered clock with moving astronomical/astrological components and animated mannequins and birds.
Al-Jazari's clocks all employed automata to mark the passage of the hours. These included birds that discharged pellets from their beaks onto cymblas , doors that opened to reveal the figures of humans, rotating Zodiac circles, the figures of musicians who struck drums or played trumpets and so on.

Source: History of Sciences in the Islamic World.

Compare that description with this Voynich page and details:


Do these Voynich features represent the clock of Al-Jaziri ?


Continued in The Voynich Manuscript part 6 : The Other Babylon


[1]  "In visiting the library of the monastery, in the month of May, 1844, I perceived in the middle of the great hall a large and wide basket full of old parchments; and the librarian, who was a man of information, told me that two heaps of papers like these, mouldered by time, had been already committed to the flames. What was my surprise to find amid this heap of papers a considerable number of sheets of a copy of the Old Testament in Greek, which seemed to me to be one of the most ancient that I had ever seen."
Constantin von Tischendorf, The Discovery Of The Sinaitic Manuscript
David Cox's Online Religious Library

Beinecke's Voynich images pages:
http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/SetsSearchExecXC.asp?src...

Useful Voynich-related sites:
(Nick Pelling's and Elmar Vogt's blogs are the most frequently updated)
http://www.ciphermysteries.com/
http://voynichthoughts.wordpress.com/


http://www.voynich.nu/roadmap.html
http://hurontaria.baf.cz/CVM/

http://www.as.up.krakow.pl/jvs/index.htm
http://www.voynich.net/
http://voynich.freie-literatur.de/index.php

Voynich-Babylon

The Voynich Manuscript part 6 : The Other Babylon
http://www.scientificblogging.com/chatter_box/voynich_manuscript_part_6_other_babylon

When I first saw images from the Voynich manuscript, I was interested in the unusual script.  As a linguist, my first thoughts were about the possible underlying language.  As I have repeatedly stated since part #1 of this series, it is futile to try to decode an unknown script without first accumulating as much background information as possible.  All clues must be examined in order to create a sort of mental Venn diagram: a set of overlapping areas at the intersection of which the major clues to the puzzle are all found.

My first impression of the manuscript was of poor quality.  I retain that impression.  The parchment seems, from the scans, to be thicker than usual.  There is evidence of stitching, but no stitches.  In places, the script is placed to avoid what must be pre-existing flaws in the parchment.  Parchment is like any other material: when manufactured it is sorted and priced by grade.  The Voynich parchment seems to me, not having handled the real thing, to be of the lowest usable quality.

The low quality of the parchment and of the drawings suggests to me something of a personal notebook.  Perhaps the script is a personal shorthand.  One might expect a personal notebook to be on paper.  In western Europe, paper was not produced in bulk until after the introduction of printing.  France's oldest paper mill was built in 1545.  The oldest known paper mill was built in Baghdad, around 794.  After the bulk production of paper the production of parchment was reduced due to the lower demand, which inevitably increased its price.  The times when parchment was cheapest, I suggest, were times of a glut of sheep relative to demand for wool, or relative to human population.  That alone suggests a date range for the Voynich of between about 1300 and 1550.  For reasons given in previous articles, I would narrow that range to about 1350 to 1450.

I commenced my studies of the Voynich ms with no idea of the cultural influences which it might contain.  We are all heavily influenced by our cultural heritage.  According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis our mother tongue can influence our perceptions.  The same seems to be true in art: people brought up in a religion, or in a culture with a bias towards one religion, tend to use or see the symbolism of their culture in art.  In the Voynich ms there is only one clear and unambiguous portrayal of a crucifix.  There are, however, many details suggestive of an Islamic influence or origin.  I have already discussed some of these in The Baghdad Connection.


Histoire du bon roi Alexandre.
Source: Wikimedia commons.  Larger images.

The image above, dating to the 13th century, has five labels: le chastel dou Cahaire, le jardin dou baume, Nectanibus roi Aegypte, le chite de babilone, le fleuve doufrate et les moulins de babilone.  The fish portrayed in the picture above resemble the pisces fish in the Voynich ms, f70v2.  It would be interesting to know whether or not these pictures accurately portray any species from the Tigris.




The image from A history of Alexander shows a considerable confusion of geography and nomenclature.  Nectanibus was an Egyptian king of myth and legend, said to be a magician.  The 'mills of Babylon' are almost certainly the mills of Baghdad.  It is interesting that they are portrayed as fortified water wheels.  I suggest that the whole picture represents Baghdad.  The clincher is the 'castle of cahaire'.  Surely this can only be the palace of al-Kahir in Baghdad.  Contemporary reports describe al-Kahar as a palace overlooking a garden of trees.  On one tree are mechanical birds of silver and gold which sing as the wind blows the tree.


"When the ambassadors entered the Palace of the Tree and gazed upon the Tree, their astonishment was great. For there they saw birds fashioned out of silver and whistling with every motion, while perched on a tree of silver weighing 500 dirhams."

Arrival of Byzantine ambassadors to the Abbasid capital in A.D. 917
Source: islamicceramics.ashmolean.org


The Other Babylon
The history of Alexander manuscript conflates Baghdad, Babylon and Egypt.  Why would a medieval writer link Egypt with Baghdad / Babylon?   The name Babylon has been assigned to a number of cities1 in Mesopotamia.  There is another Babylon outside of Mesopotamia: we know it today as Cairo.  The only part of Cairo today that still retains the name is Babylon Fortress.  This is the oldest original structure in Cairo.  The question now arises: are there any features in the Voynich manuscript suggestive of Egypt?  Yes, there are.

Long before the fleur-de-lys was adopted as a royal symbol by the French it was in use in ancient Egypt.  The symbol appears in ancient hieroglyphics and in the medieval Voynich manuscript.  It appears in f76v and in f85r2.  The other symbol in f76v may be a caduceus, a symbol which may have originated in Babylon.

Detail of f76v


Detail of f85r2, with fleur-de-lys held by figure at left.  Upper figure shows a ring, right figure holds a pot, perhaps an albarello.  I suggest that the lower figure holds what may be a garland, or a skipping-rope or jump-rope.  The Egyptians apparently made these of vines for ceremonial purposes.

The most interesting feature of f85r2 is the image of the sun, apparently in a pool of water.  Could this be another Egyptian connection?  In 230 BCE Eratosthenes measured Earth's diameter.  He did this based on his knowledge that the sun shone directly into the well at Syene at noon of the summer solstice.  Could this be a representation of that well?

There is another, somewhat tentative, connection between the Voynich ms and Egypt.  On the 'rosettes' page there are what I take to be representations of stone walls, with the stones being of a specific shape.  In one panel, the stones are round.  I suggest this may indicate a reservoir or pond, rather than a defensive wall. 

There is a central image, something like a boss or rosette, attached to the pond wall by two 'ropes' each side, via a 'fishtail' shape.


Khumaruyah, ruler of Egypt from about 883 - 896 had a problem sleeping.  It is said that he had a pool of mercury constructed with a bed of air-cushions secured by silk on which he could be rocked to sleep at night.  Of course, mercury is highly toxic, so we must take this as pure fantasy.  Or perhaps a mistranslation or false etymology.  The Latinised Greek for mercury is hydrargyrum, meaning fluid silver.  But if taken as hydra + gyrum then it means ring of water or perhaps whirling or swirling water.  Was the pool of Khumaruyah just a moat?  And is it portrayed in the Voynich manuscript?

Voynich-Merlons and Bartizans.

The Voynich Manuscript Part 7 : Further Dating Studies
http://www.scientificblogging.com/chatter_box/voynich_manuscript_part_7_scripts_swallowtails

I present here more evidence in support of my suggestion that the Voynich manuscript may date from a period between 1350 to 1450, perhaps even earlier.  This is part 7 of an occasional series which commenced in part 1 with information about Wilfrid and Ethel Voynich.

Merlons and Bartizans.
A Bartizan is a turret which overhangs a fortified wall.  Merlons are the parts of fortified walls between the gaps of castellations,  crenellations or battlements.  Merlons come in many shapes.  The most common shape in Europe is square.  In Egypt there are many buildings with vee-shaped merlons, giving the top of the wall a zig-zag appearance.  In two other types the square is surmounted by either a triangular or semicircular cap.  In the VM the types portrayed are square and swallowtail.  The picture below, which combines details from three locations in the 'rosettes' or map page of the VM, shows two bartizans and extensive swallowtail merlons.



The relevance of bartizans and swallowtail merlons is that if the date of their introduction to fortifications were accurately known it would provide an earliest plausible date for the VM.  The following illustration shows bartizans and shallow swallowtail merlons.


Wikimedia commons: Breviarum Grimani, ca. 1510.

What struck me about this picture is that the artist has taken the trouble to show signs of aging, suggesting that the wall on which this artwork is modelled was already old when seen by the artist.  Encouraged by this observation I went in search of further evidence.


"The oldest palaces, those of the thirteenth century, are sterner even than the stern Strozzi ; they stand among the later houses like fighting men with vizors down amid the grave, long-gowned scholars and lawgivers of the quattrocento. Their walls rise sheer and plain, sometimes to the very top of the battlements (for they often keep their merlons, square-headed, if Guelph, forked, if Ghibelline), sometimes broken at the summit by the corbelled parapet; their plainly bordered windows are but slightly recessed, and the grating sets its teeth down hard into the stone, instead of caging the whole opening, as in later palaces."

Edwin Howland Blashfield,  Italian Cities Vol. II.

Encouraged by this description I went in search of a manuscript of the era showing swallowtail merlons.  I found an illustration in the Tacuinum Sanitatis (Codex Vindobonensis, series nova 2644, fol. 104v), c. 1370-1400.  A detail is shown below.

Source: Réunion des Musées Nationaux photo agency


I found an illustration of a bartizan in Très Riches Heures du Duc Jean de Berry, December.


Source: Wikimedia commons.

This image of a bartizan dates from 1412 to 1416. 

The VM Script

It has been suggested by many VM researchers that the VM script resembles humanist script.  The emergence of the humanist script, or humanist hand, lies within my suggested date range, but would suggest a date rather late in that range.  I have found a sample of manuscript which is, I suggest, a closer match to the VM script and which predates the general introduction of humanist hand.

Image source: Medieval Manuscripts in Dutch Collections.

The upper part is the last folio of the VM.  The inset is from a manuscript dated circa 1360: Leiden, UB : ms. BPL 2429, f. 1r; Leiden.


Concluding remarks
Whilst the description in Italian Cities suggests 13th century, later reconstruction and modification cannot be ruled out.  However, the illustrations suggest dates before which these fortification types must have been introduced.  The dates for the fortification details, therefore,  and for the script shown, fall well within my suggested VM date range of 1350 to 1450.  For reasons which I shall give in a later article, I suggest that the VM was more likely to have been created at the earlier end of that date range.

My researches continue.  I am currently building a database of herbal illustrations and descriptions. I am also using my computer to analyse the distribution of words and characters in the VM.  I hope to report my findings here soon.

Continued in The Voynich Manuscript Part 8 : Some Notes On Writing Systems.

Voynich-swallow-tail merlons

Is the nine-rosette sea-side castle Nice?

Posted by nickpelling on May 19th, 2010


It’s not widely known that the Voynich Manuscript’s “nine-rosette” foldout page contains two sets of swallow-tail merlons – one set on top of the famous castle (as per the Cipher Mysteries header graphic), and one on a long low wall, apparently beside the sea. This latter runs across one of the folds, making it very slightly awkward to make out:-
seaside castle Is the nine rosette sea side castle Nice?
But where is this? I suspect it’s not Genoa, because (as per this picture from Hartmann Schedel’s 1493 Weltchronik) that had neither a flat sea frontage nor swallowtail merlons. For a while I suspected that it might depict Naples: but while reading up on the Occitan dialect Niçard, I found a, well, nice picture of Nice being besieged from the sea by Barbarossa in 1543. The (fabulously made-up) story goes that outraged local washerwoman Catherine Ségurane climbed on top of the walls to expose her ample rear to the Turkish fleet, which (somehow) caused them to abandon their attack (Ségurane’s triumphant mooning is celebrated on November 25th [St Catherine's Day] each year in Nice)… but I guess you had to be there. Anyway… because of Turin’s history as a key part of the Duchy of Savoy, the Biblioteca Reale di Torino also has quite a few piante e disegni of Nice AKA ‘Nizza’ (see p.508 of this online inventory, though unfortunately few dates are given), which might prove to be a useful resource. I don’t know whether or not all this line of thought is going anywhere: it’s certainly something to bear in mind, though.
I also found a nice picture of the same Turkish fleet wintering in Toulon, a mere 100 miles down the coast: it’s hard to be sure, but it looks to me as though its walls have swallowtail merlons. Were there any more major walled ports circa 1400-1450 between Marseille and Genoa? Perhaps Villefranche-sur-Mer? Someone out there should know…
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23 Responses

  1. Paul Ferguson Paul Ferguson Says:
    Not exactly Savoy/Piedmont but it looks a bit like the Bellinzona castles, in which case it would be a river (Ticino) not the sea:
    http://www.swisstraveling.com/2008/08/02/bellinzona/
  2. Nick
 Pelling nickpelling Says:
    Paul: good point! For all my research into Milan I hadn’t thought to look at Bellinzona. What might also possibly be connected is that one of Filarete’s big secrets was the site where he thought the Sforza’s ‘Milan 2.0′ (AKA Sforzinda) should be built: so if this is Bellinzona, then the VMs’ nine-rosette page might possibly be a local map to Sforzinda. It’s fun to speculate once in a while, eh? Thanks! :-)
  3. Rene Zandbergen Rene Zandbergen Says:
    The Bellinzona castle isn’t actually on the side of the river, or is it? This combination one has in Verona though: http://www.italianvisits.com/images/veneto-im/verona/verona-ponte_scaligero2.jpg
    Unfortunately, I don’t have a date for this construction, but there are a number of walls with swallow tails facing the river.
    There’s lake Garda with a few castles as well…
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  5. Diane Diane Says:
    Nick – who invented the term ’swallowtail’ merlons? Is that what the medieval engineers or masons (or something) called them?
  6. Paul Ferguson Paul Ferguson Says:
    The Skaliger bridge in Verona is mid-1350s according to Wiki:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castelvecchio_Bridge
  7. Paul Ferguson Paul Ferguson Says:
    On Lake Garda another Scaliger/Skaliger edifice would seem the likeliest candidate:
    http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-30301837/stock-photo–the-scaliger-castle-in-sirmione-on-lake-garda.html
  8. Paul Ferguson Paul Ferguson Says:
    This castle in Genoa has swallowtails:
    http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Genova-Castello_d‘Albertis-DSCF5405.JPG
  9. Nick
 Pelling nickpelling Says:
    Diane: don’t know, most just referred to them as Ghibelline as far as I know.
    Paul: we’re long on swallowtails but short on seaside castle walls (or, as you point out, riverside castle walls or crenellated bridges).
  10. Paul Ferguson Paul Ferguson Says:

The four main Voynich ghosts…

The four main Voynich ghosts…

Posted by nickpelling on Jun 15th, 2010

At the start of my own VMs research path, I thought it was important to consider everyone’s observations and interpretations (however, errrm, ’fruity’) as each one may just possibly contain that single mythical seed of truth which could be nurtured and grown into a substantial tree of knowledge. Sadly, however, it has become progressively clearer to me as time has passed that any resemblance between most Voynich researchers’ interpretations (i.e. not you, dear reader) and what the VMs actually contains is likely to be purely coincidental.
Why is this so? It’s not because Voynich researchers are any less perceptive or any more credulous than ‘mainstream’ historians (who are indeed just as able to make fools of themselves when the evidence gets murky, as Voynich evidence most certainly is). Rather, I think it is because there are some ghosts in our path – illusory notions that mislead and hinder us as we try to move forward.
So: in a brave (but probably futile) bid to exorcise these haunted souls, here is my field guide to what I consider the four main ghosts who gently steer people off the (already difficult) road into the vast tracts of quagmire just beside it…
Ghost #1:  “the marginalia must be enciphered, and so it is a waste of time to try to read them”
I’ve heard this from plenty of people, and recently even from a top-tier palaeographer (though it wasn’t David Ganz, if you’re asking). I’d fully agree that…
  • The Voynich Manuscript’s marginalia are in a mess
  • To be precise, they are in a near-unreadable state
  • They appear to be composed of fragments of different languages
  • There’s not a lot of them to work with, yet…
  • There is a high chance that these were written by the author or by someone remarkably close to the author’s project
As with most non-trick coins, there are two quite different sides you can spin all this: either as (a) good reasons to run away at high speed, or as (b) heralds calling us to great adventure. But all the same, running away should be for properly rational reasons: whereas simply dismissing the marginalia as fragments of an eternally-unreadable ciphertext seems to be simply an alibi for not rising to their challenge – there seems (the smattering of Voynichese embedded in them aside) no good reason to think that this is written in cipher.
Furthermore, the awkward question here is that given that the VMs’ author was able to construct such a sophisticated cipher alphabet and sustain it over several hundred pages in clearly readable text, why add a quite different (but hugely obscure) one on the back page in such unreadable text?
(My preferred explanation is that later owners emended the marginalia to try to salvage its (already noticeably faded) text: but for all their good intentions, they left it in a worse mess than the one they inherited. And this is a hypothesis that can be tested directly with multispectral and/or Raman scanning.)
Ghost  #2: “the current page order was the original page order, or at least was the direct intention of the original author”
As evidence for this, you could point out that the quire numbers and folio numbers are basically in order, and that pretty much all the obvious paint transfers between pages occurred in the present binding order (i.e. the gathering and nesting order): so why should the bifolio order be wrong?
Actually, there are several good reasons: for one, Q13 (“Quire 13″) has a drawing that was originally rendered across the central fold of a bifolio as an inside bifolio. Also, a few long downstrokes on some early Herbal quires reappear in the wrong quire completely. And the (presumably later) rebinding of Q9 has made the quire numbering subtly inconsistent with the folio numbering. Also, the way that Herbal A and Herbal B pages are mixed up, and the way that the handwriting on adjacent pages often changes styles dramatically would seem to indicate some kind of scrambling has taken place right through the herbal quires. Finally, it seems highly likely that the original second innermost bifolio on Q13 was Q13’s current outer bifolio (but inside out!), which would imply that at least some bifolio scrambling took place even before the quire numbers were added.
Yet some smart people (most notably Glen Claston) continue to argue that this ghost is a reality: and why would GC be wrong about this when he is so meticulous about other things? I suspect that the silent partner to his argument here is Leonell Strong’s claimed decipherment: and that some aspect of that decipherment requires that the page order we now see can only be the original. It, of course, would be wonderful if this were true: but given that I remain unconvinced that Strong’s “(0)135797531474″ offset key is correct (or even historically plausible for the mid-15th century, particularly when combined with a putative set of orthographic rules that the encipherer is deemed to be trying to follow), I have yet to accept this as de facto codicological evidence.
To be fair, GC now asserts that the original author consciously reordered the pages according to some unknown guiding principle, deliberately reversing bifolios, swapping them round and inserting extra bifolios so that their content would follow some organizational plan we currently have no real idea about. Though this is a pretty sophisticated attempt at a save, I’m just not convinced: I’m pretty sure (for example) that Q9 and the pharma quires were rebound for handling convenience - in Q9’s case, this involved rebinding it along a different fold to make it less lopsided, while in the pharma quires’ case, I suspect that all the wide bifolios from the herbal section were simply stitched together for convenience.
Ghost #3: ”Voynichese is a single language that remained static during the writing process”
If you stand at the foot of a cliff and de-focus your gaze to take in the whole vertical face in one go, you’d never be able to climb it: you’d be overawed by the entire vast assembly. No: the way to make such an ascent is to strategize an overall approach and tackle it one hand- and foot-hold at a time. Similarly, I think many Voynich researchers seem to stand agog at the vastness of the overall ciphertext challenge they face: whereas in fact, with the right set of ideas (and a good methodology) it should really be possible to crack it one page (or one paragraph, line, word, or perhaps even letter) at a time.
Yet the problem is that many researchers rely on aggregating statistics calculated over the entire manuscript, when common sense shows that different parts have very different profiles – not just Currier A and Currier B, but also labels, radial lines, circular fragments, etc. I also think it extraordinarily likely that a number of “space insertion ciphers” have been used in various places to break up long words and repeating patterns (both of which are key cryptographic tells). Therefore, I would caution all Voynich researchers relying on statistical evidence for their observations that they should be extremely careful about selecting pragmatic subsets of the VMs when trying to draw conclusions.
Happily, some people (most notably Marke Fincher and Rene Zandbergen) have come round to the idea that the Voynichese system evolved over the course of the writing process - but even they don’t yet seem comfortable with taking this idea right to its limit. Which is this: that if we properly understood the dynamics by which the Voynichese system evolved, we would be able to re-sequence the pages into their original order of construction (which should be hugely revealing in its own right), and then start to reach towards an understanding of the reasons for that evolution – specfically, what type of cipher “tells” the author was trying to avoid presenting.
For example: “early” pages neither have word-initial “l-” nor do we see the word “qol” appear, yet this is very common later. If we compare the Markov states for early and late pages, could we identify what early-page structure that late-page “l-” is standing in for? If we can do this, then I think we would get a very different perspective on the stats – and on the nature of the ‘language’ itself. And similarly for other tokens such as “cXh” (strikethrough gallows), etc.
Ghost #4: “the text and paints we see have remained essentially unchanged over time”
It is easy to just take the entire artefact as a fait accompli – something presented to our modern eyes as a perfect expression of an unknown intention (this is usually supported by arguments about the apparently low number of corrections). If you do, the trap you can then fall headlong in is to try to rationalize every feature as deliberate. But is that necessarily so?
Jorge Stolfi has pointed out a number of places where it looks as though corrections and emendations have been made, both to the text and to the drawings, with perhaps the most notorious “layerer” of all being his putative “heavy painter” – someone who appears to have come in at a late stage (say, late 16th century) to beautify the mostly-unadorned drawings with a fairly slapdash paint job.
Many pages also make me wonder about the assumption of perfection, and possibly none more so than f55r. This is the herbal page with the red lead lines still in the flowers which I gently parodied here: it is also (unusually) has two EVA ‘x’ characters on line 8. There’s also an unusual word-terminal “-ai” on line 10 (qokar or arai o ar odaiiin) [one of only three in the VMs?], a standalone “dl” word on line 12 [sure, dl appears 70+ times, but it still looks odd to me], and a good number of ambiguous o/a characters. To my eye, there’s something unfinished and imperfectly corrected about both the text and the pictures here that I can’t shake off, as if the author had fallen ill while composing it, and tidied it up in a state of distress or discomfort: it just doesn’t feel as slick as most pages.
I have also had a stab at assessing likely error rates in the VMs (though I can’t now find the post, must have noted it down wrong) and concluded that the VMs is, just as Tony Gaffney points out with printed ciphers, probably riddled with copying errors.
No: unlike Paul McCartney’s portable Buddha statue, the Voynich Manuscript’s inscrutability neither implies inner perfection nor gives us a glimmer of peace. Rather, it shouts “Mu!” and forces us to microscopically focus on its imperfections so that we can move past its numerous paradoxes - all of which arguably makes the VMs the biggest koan ever constructed. Just so you know!

Astrolabes, nocturnals and Voynich Manuscript


For a decade, I’ve wondered whether any of the Voynich Manuscript’s circular drawings depict astronomical instruments – for before satnav there was celnav (“celestial navigation”). Here’s a brief guide to three key instrument types from the VMs’ timeframe, and my current thoughts on the enigmatic circular diagram on f57v…
* * * * * * *
A key navigational problem of the 15th century was determining your latitude. Though many different instruments (such as the quadrant, the cross staff, and the back staff) came to be used to do this around this time, I’m restricting my observations here to the three purely circular ones - the astrolabe, the mariner’s astrolabe, and the nocturnal.
(1) Though astrolabes were originally used for determining the positions of planets and stars, people realised that they could also be used for telling the time (if you knew your latitude), or for working out your latitude (if you knew what time of day it was). Astrolabes were constructed from a complex (but well-known and well-documented) set of multilayered rotating components:-
  • A backplate (the mater) whose edge (the limb) is marked round with 24 hours or 360 degrees
  • A large circular central recess (the matrix, or womb) in the mater, into which you insert…
  • A disk (the tympan) containing a stereographically projected map of the sky for a particular latitude
  • On top of the tympan goes a rotating spidery net-like thing (the rete) containing easily recognizable stars;
  • On top of the rete goes a long rotating rule (the rule)
  • On the back goes a second rotating rule-like thing with two sighting holes / marks (the alidade)
If you haven’t seen an astrolabe dissected, there’s a nice annotated diagram on the Whipple Museum website.
My understanding is that most medieval European astrolabes were inaccurate because they were made of wood, though this improved when they started to be made of metal (an innovation which I understand mainly began in the 15th century). Yet even with well made astrolabes to hand, using them can be a bit tricky, particularly when you are at sea: and they’re not very convenient to use at night either.
(2) So, step forward the mariner’s astrolabe (or sea astrolabe or ring). Though this was little more than a cut-down version of the astrolabe, its key design feature was that it was built to be particularly heavy (and so was much more stable at sea). In contrast to the thousands of astrolabes out there, only 21 mariner’s astrolabes are known: the earliest description of one is from 1551, while historians suspect they came into use in the late 15th century.
Really, this was little more than a superheavy astrolabe limb hanging from a ring and with an alidade on the front: but it did the job, so all credit to its inventor… whoever that may be. The Wikipedia mariner’s astrolabe page notes that it might possibly have been Martin Behaim (1459-1507), but because it seems he was adept at relabeling other people’s discoveries and inventions as his own, probably the most we can pragmatically say is that the idea for the mariner’s astrolabe was ‘in the air’ in the mid-to-late 15th century.
(3) Solving the astrolabe’s other major shortcoming, the nocturnal (or nocturlabe, nocturlabium, or horologium noctis) was specifically designed to be used at night. A 2003 paper notes that the first evidence of nocturlabes was not a textual mention in 1524 (as was long thought), but rather a series of actual devices made by Falcono of Bergamo and dating from 1504 to 1507 (who also made astrolabes, such as this one from the British Museum). For a nice picture, the National Maritime Museum has a 17th century nocturnal here (D9091).
As far as construction goes, a nocturnal consisted of: a rotating outer ring marked both with the months of the year and with the 24-hour time; a hole in the middle of the central pivot that you could see through; and a second rotating ring with one, two, or three pointers. Once you had rotated the outer ring to closely match that day’s date, you would hold your nocturnal at arm’s length, line Polaris up through the central hole, and then align the second rotating ring so that its pointers pointed at some well-known stars (normally Shedar [α Cassiopeia], Dubhe [α Ursa Major], and Kochab [ß Ursa Minor]): there’s some nice discussion here on why these were chosen.) Once you had done all that, you would find (as if by high-tech magic) that the major pointer on the second ring would be pointing to the current time of day marked on the first ring. (Well… pretty much, anyway.)
Here’s a simplified look at the night sky, highlighting the four key stars referred to on a typical nocturnal:-
nocturnal stars annotated Astrolabes, nocturnals and Voynich 
Manuscript page f57v...
Incidentally, an open history of science question is whether Columbus had a nocturnal on his well-equipped voyages of discovery. This well-informed page seems to imply that he did, and that it was used to determine midnight – the ship’s boy would then turn over an “ampoleta” (a little sand-glass that would take half-an-hour to empty) to start counting out the daily cycle of shifts. Unfortunately, it turns out that Columbus didn’t properly understand how to use his various astronomical instruments, and that he faked a number of his latitude records. Oh well!
To summarize: though the astrolabe had been used and developed since antiquity, there was little about it that was secret circa 1450. However, this was the moment in history when people were starting to apply their formidably Burckhardtian Renaissance ingenuity to get around the limitations of the traditional astrolabe, by adapting the basic design for use at sea and at night. Yet for both the mariner’s astrolabe and the nocturnal, the documentary evidence is silent on who made them first.
* * * * * * *
What, then, of the Voynich Manuscript?
I have been trying to get under the skin of the ringed diagram on f57v for many years: even by the VMs’ consistently high level of (well) anomalousness, this page has numerous anomalies on display that seem to promise a way in for the determined Voynich researcher:-
  • Its drawings most closely matches the circular astronomical drawings in Q9 (‘Quire #9‘), yet its bifolio is bound in the middle of the herbal Q8
  • It has a curious piece of marginalia at the bottom right
  • There’s a spare ‘overflow’ word at the top left [marked green below]
  • The second ring comprises essentially the same 17-character sequence repeated four times
  • Each 17-character sequence contains an over-ornate anomalous “gallows” character [marked red below]
  • The 17-character sequence contains a number of low-instance-count letter-shapes
  • The fourth ring contains another long sequence of single characters [marked blue below]
  • It has four strange ‘personifications’ drawn around its centre (seasons? winds? directional spirits?)
  • It is far from clear what the four personifications are depicting, let alone representing
  • Finally, it has a ’sol’-like dotted sun at the centre
f57v annotated Astrolabes, nocturnals and Voynich Manuscript page 
f57v...
I therefore think that any proper account of f57v should therefore not only offer a high-level explanation of its intent and content, but also a low-level explanation of these anomalous features. The problem is that any reasoning chain to cover this much ground will almost inevitably require a mix of codicology, palaeography, history, astronomy, and historical cryptography… so bear with me while I build this up one step at a time.
First up is codicology: Glen Claston and I agree that f57v was probably the very first page of the astronomical section Q9 - by this, we mean that the two bifolios currently forming Q8 have ended up bound upside-down. So, even though the current folio order is f57-f58-(missing pages)-f65-f66, the original folio order ran f65-f66-(missing)-f57-f58. The page immediately preceding f57v (i.e. f57r) has a herbal picture on it, which is why Glen and I are pretty sure that f57v formed the first page of the astronomical section: while both sides of f58 have starred paragraphs (and no herbal drawings), which also makes it seem misplaced in the herbal section.
A second clue that this is the case is the marginalia mark at the bottom: I think this is a scrawly “ij” with a bar above it (i.e. secundum), indicating the start of Book II (i.e. where Book I would have been the herbal) - this probably isn’t a quire mark because it doesn’t appear on the end folio of a quire. And a third clue is that the page we believe originally facing f57v (i.e. f58r) has an inserted blank block at the start of the first paragraph, which I suspect is a lacuna [highlighted blue below] deliberately left empty to remind the encipherer that the unenciphered version of this page began with an ornamented capital.
missing ornamental capital Astrolabes, nocturnals and Voynich 
Manuscript page f57v...
As for the odd word at the top left, the odds are that this is no more than an overflow from the outermost text ring: a similar overflow word appears in one of the necromantic magic circles famously described by Richard Kieckhefer as I described in “The Curse” (though of course this doesn’t prove that this page depicts a magic circle).
I think codicology can also help us to understand the mysterious 17-glyph repeating sequence, a pattern that has inspired many a high-concept numerological riff over the years: for if you look carefully at the four over-ornate gallows, you might notice something a bit unexpected…
f57v gallows Astrolabes, nocturnals and Voynich Manuscript page 
f57v...
Even though I’d prefer to be making this judgment on the basis of better scans (which seem unlikely to be arriving any time soon, unfortunately), I’m pretty sure that what we’re seeing here is a pair of characters which have been joined together to resemble a non-existent gallows. I’d even go so far as to say that I think that the decision to make this change was probably made while the author was still writing the page: from which I infer that 18 x 4 would have been too obvious, but 17 x 4 was obscure.
If you accept that this is right, then this changes the number patterns completely, because whereas 4 x 17 = 68 doesn’t really have much numerical (as opposed to numerological) significance, 4 x 18 = 72 does – for you see, 72 x 5° = 360°. And if we are looking at some kind of 360° division of the circle, then all of a sudden this page becomes a strong candidate for being some kind of enciphered or steganographically concealed astronomical instrument, because division into 360° has been a conceptual cornerstone of Western astronomical computing for millennia.
For several years, I therefore wondered if f57v might be depicting an astrolabe: but I have to say that the comparison never really gained any traction, however hard I tried. However… the question now comes round as to whether f57v’s circular drawing might instead depict a mariner’s astrolabe or a nocturnal.
That this might be a mariner’s astrolabe is perfectly plausible. The ‘overflow word’ might denote a ring, the second 360° ring could be the scale round the edge, and the four people in the middle could simply be decorative “fillers” for the four holes normally placed in the middle.
Comparing f57v with a nocturnal, however, is particularly interesting. The obvious thing to hide in the central design would be depictions or denotations of the constellations and the sighting stars so crucial to the operations. Given that there are plenty of different strength lines and curious shapes in the four characters to be found there, let’s take a closer look…
f57v central rosette1 Astrolabes, nocturnals and Voynich 
Manuscript page f57v...
Now, the four elements we’d expect to see in a description of a nocturnal are Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, Ursa, Minor and Polaris: and I suspect that this is what we have here. Look again at the woman’s face on the left, and I wonder whether her name has been quite literally written across her face:-
casio Astrolabes, nocturnals and Voynich Manuscript page f57v...
As for the top and bottom characters here on this page, they have long puzzled Voynich researchers – why are they so wildly hairy and apparently facing away? What kind of a person is being shown here? Perhaps the answer is simply that these represent not people but bears, specifically the Great Bear (Ursa Major) at the top and the Smaller Bear (Ursa Minor) at the bottom.
The final character of the four would represent Polaris (short for stella polaris), which in the 16th Century (?) came to be called ‘Cynosura’ (the Greek mountain nymph who nursed Zeus in Crete). I have to say that I don’t really know what is going on here – perhaps other people better versed in astronomical history or mythology might be able to tell me why this person should be carrying a ring or an egg (?), and what the character’s curious strong lines (nose and top of upper arm) might be denoting.
f57v sol Astrolabes, nocturnals and Voynich Manuscript page 
f57v...
Yet perhaps the biggest clincher of all, though, is the ’sol’-like shape right at the centre of f57v. We might be able to discount the possibility that this represents the astrologers’ glyph for the sun, because this only came into use around 1480 (as I recall). For in the context of a drawing of a circular astronomical instrument, is this not – almost unmistakeably – a depiction of Polaris (the dot) as viewed through a hole in the pivot (the circle)?
As always, the evidence is far from complete so you’ll have to make up your own mind on this. But it’s an interesting chain of reasoning, hmmm?
Spookily, the kind of analogue computing embedded in nocturnals has a thoroughly modern equivalent. Polaris does not sit precisely on the Earth’s pole but rather rotates around it very slightly, and so requires a correction in order to be used as a reference for true North (on a ship, say). Hence a spreadsheet can be constructed to make this fine adjustment - essentially, this is a nocturnal simplified and adapted to yield the north correction required. Some good ideas can remain useful for hundreds of years!