Given that most Voynich furrows have been heavily overploughed over the last two decades, it has become rare for something novel to pop up on my Voynich radar. On those rare occasions such a thing does happen (e.g. the Sagittarius crossbowman, etc), I do try to use my posts to communicate a sense of enthusiasm and excitement.

And so here’s something that might well prove to be interesting: an “Honors senior thesis presentation” courtesy of Adam Lewis at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma in Washington, entitled “An Anatomy of Failure: Analysis Attempts to Decode the Voynich Manuscript” – 6pm-7pm on 21st February 2018, at UPS’s Wyatt Hall, Room 109.

Incidentally, here’s a picture of the University of Puget Sound’s mascot “Grizz the Logger” in action:

So… why is it that the floor around the VMs is littered with so many dead bodies, so many foolish theories, indeed so many grotesquely idiotic theories? What is it about the Voynich Manuscript that draws out the airiest and least tethered of speculations from people? It’s certainly a topic I’ve thought a lot about over the years, and so I look forward to (eventually) reading Adam Lewis’s senior thesis: it should be fun.

Incidentally, I don’t believe I’ve ever talked with Adam, but I suspect this is his LinkedIn profile here.

On the down side, however, I should point out that the talk is marked as “Campus Only” on the website, so even if you do want to go along, you may not actually get in: hence I’d certainly advise phoning or emailing beforehand if you are considering this.

As a sidenote, fans of Alex Scarrow’s books will probably remember that “Timeriders: The Doomsday Code” features a computer hacker called Alex Lewis, who finds his name hidden in the Voynich Manuscript. That’s probably just coincidental (or possibly some time travelling geocache trickery), but I thought I’d mention it anyway. 😉

Just in passing: I’m planning a trip to Rome in the near future, and so have been wondering what Cipher Mysteries-related things there might be to see or do there.

Armando al Pantheon

The Armando al Pantheon restaurant (with its Luigi Serafini-designed alchemical crockery, complete with miniature Pantheon) is obviously on the list.


I note also that the restaurant’s menu includes a Bruschetta alla Serafini starter.

Dead Famous

However, I don’t know of anything else I should go to have a look at when in Rome. In a town with so many graves of the famous, does it also have the graves of any famous cryptographers or cryptologists?

I can certainly think of plenty of people who nearly fit the bill. For example, Giovan Battista Bellaso (whose Wikipedia page is OK, but a little bit stale) certainly worked in Rome, but nobody seems to know where he died. It is believed that Filarete died in (and was buried in) Rome, but all traces of his gravestone disappeared long ago. And even though Leon Battista Alberti died in Rome, the only memorial to him I know of is in Florence (in the Basilica di Santa Croce).

Moreover, even though I’ve blogged a number of times about mysterious and/or encrypted gravestones, there seems to be not one of these in Rome’s capacious crypts and cemeteries. 🙁

So… what have I missed? The Armando al Pantheon aside, is there anything else in Rome that a Cipher Mysteries guy should have a look at? (And yes, I know all about the Vatican’s archives, but that’s a mission for quite another kind of trip.)

Beyond the ivory-towered coterie of the late twentieth century academic world, few people cared to try to understand postmodernism, let alone wield it: even now, few mourn its death.

Attempts to define what postmodernism actually was tend to come across almost as effete and self-referential as the worst postmodernist works themselves: all that can comfortably be summarised is that it was a diffuse movement that asserted (a) that there is no capital-T Truth, only socially constructed small-t truths; and (b) that there are no Grand Narratives, just (yes, you guessed it) socially constructed local narratives that serve a narrator’s purpose.

Yet given that plenty of non-postmodernist writers and philosophers had put forward countless variations on the same point of view, what was there about postmodernism that was unique? Or, dare I say it, even remotely interesting?


“It’s the combination of narcissism and nihilism that really defines postmodernism”, Al Gore once said (New York Observer, Nov. 2002): but in my opinion, even this is not strong enough. Postmodernism was an artefact of an academic milieu in which both the postmodernists themselves and everyone else were assumed to be narcissists all at the same time. The line between “the truth is what I want you to think it is” (narcissism) and “truth is socially constructed” (postmodernism) is only a matter of degree or scale: for it is only in a society where everyone just happens to be a narcissist that the former is able to scale up to the latter.

The real toxin of postmodernism, then, is not its nihilism but instead its implicit scaled-up narcissism: it could not distinguish itself from other ways of thinking, but only ever replace them en masse, by imposing its own narcissistic worldview on others. It always secretly saw itself as a thinking meta-hack, a clever-arse way to explain away all the difficulties of Truth and External Stuff In General.

Pro-History or Anti-History?

The overriding practical problem with postmodernist thought was that it could not account for historical truth. The central (and, I think, only genuine) starting point for historical epistemology is that of trying to answer the question “What Happened?” When all evidence is formed by the quest not for causality but for actuality, postmodernists cannot ‘do’ History, because they cannot accept that any single account could have primacy over all others.

As a result, postmodernism positioned itself quite contrary to History: for even though there are plenty of historians who happily do their thing without any Grand Narrative (or indeed Grand Old White Males) as support, few could do their job if there were no historical evidence to work with. As a result, I cannot see how postmodernism can be anything apart from fundamentally Anti-History.

Postmodernism = Caesar

Yes, postmodernism is dead, and more seem to want to lead their dogs to piss on its grave than to celebrate it. And it should also be no surprise that here “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them;. The good is oft interred with their bones.

For me, it seems that the most enduring legacy of postmodernism is a general weakening of thinking, even among people who don’t really know what postmodernism was. And the reason for this was that people became too strongly conditioned by (what for a long time was) the dominant anti-Truth totemic trope of postmodernist culture.

At the heart of this broken programme lies what I think is a linguistic confusion given to us by language. Even though we use the same word ‘truth’ for both historical truth (a statement about what happened can be false or partially true, never 100% true) and mathematical truth (a logical property of a statement within a system, all of which can be painfully close to tautology), the postmodernists took it instead as if it related to political truth (of which there is no such thing). As a result, I think one of the central conceits of the postmodernist parade was founded on a misunderstanding of what Truth is: for the ‘Truth’ they railed against was simply their political straw man, propped up solely to be ripped down. And it was always the wrong kind of Truth.

It Lives!

All of which would be no more than a sidenote, were it not for the fact (in my opinion, at least) that there remains a widespread distrust of Truth – that it is actually Patriarchal Truth (or at least Grand Old White Male Truth), subtly lodged in our minds by the unwilling pawns of the dominant cultural hegemony like a false memory.

Yet when we examine objects from the past – whether a building, a document, a dress, or an unsolved ciphertext – There Is A Single Truth about what happened, and the ineluctable combination of prolonged careful observation and clear focused thought can almost always bring us closer to it.

At the same time, there are plenty of bad questions that people attempt to pass off as historical inquiry: “Why did that happen?”, “What was X thinking?”, “What was X’s ultimate intention?”, “Is it the illustrated diary of a teenage space alien?” (I kid you not). In each case, these almost always have broadly the kind of Grand Narrative derided by postmodernists as their jelly skeleton: the only real historical inquiry is about that which happened, everything else is just pretension and Hollywood.

So perhaps we can forgive the postmodernists for one thing: even if they did misunderstand Truth completely, there are still plenty of ludicrous Grand Narratives out there being passed off as Grand Facts which we should learn how to resist. 🙂


If you don’t take my word for it that postmodernism has weakened people’s thinking, here’s a (black) mirror to hold up to the world. The (just now arriving) Season 11 of the X-Files (discussed on The Verge here) has Dr They talking to our old friend Fox M:

“Your time has passed,” They tells Mulder. “We’re now living in a post-coverup, post-conspiracy age. The public no longer knows what’s meant by the truth. No one can tell the difference anymore between what’s real and what’s fake.”

“There’s still an objective truth,” Mulder insists.

And (of course) Mulder is shown to be correct… though probably not in a way that he and Scully can prove to anyone. The Truth is indeed still out there, though – as always – proof remains hard.

Incidental news: Cipher Mysteries recently had its 25,000th comment, while it has now also had close to three million page views. Which is nice. (Just thought I’d mention it in passing.) The remainder of the post is for tying up various Voynich threads that aren’t each enough for a whole post of their own.

Edith Zimmerman

Here’s a Voynich amuse-bouche: any page with drawings taken from the Voynich Manuscript’s Quire 13 that includes the following quote is more than OK by me:

Anyway, so then we got to the part in our performance where Shelly and Mathilde stand in giant pipes covered with rhinestones. They hold up large balloons that have fishtails dangling off them, Chinese dragon-style.

Voynich LOL

An example of the per-section language use in Voynichese is that the word EVA “lol” appears far more often in quires Q13 and Q20 than anywhere else. Here’s the lol cluster in the top paragraph of f77r (1 x loly, 3 x lol, all at the end of lines):

Aside from Q13, EVA lol also appears here: f48v f86v6 f103r/v f106r f107r/v f111v f113v f115r f116r. Incidentally, the first word of the last paragraph of f116r (which I suspect contains a colophon from the author) seems to me to be the same kind of thing as the heavily digraph-structured labelese words, though with the extra twist of EVA l sometimes standing in for ol, as I discussed elsewhere):

Brian Hendley

The recent talk of Canadian academics’ rogue AI’s preparing for the enslavement of Mankind by solving Voynichese triggered some memories in the head of Brian Hendley, a philosophy professor at the University of Waterloo:

Your recent story about deciphering the mysterious Voynich manuscript took me back to my graduate school days at Yale and my dissertation supervisor, Bob Brumbaugh. Bob was a recognized Plato scholar but he did have a crack at deciphering the Voynich manuscript, resulting in some published articles and a book, “The Most Mysterious Manuscript: The Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Cipher Manuscript.” I recall Bob saying that you could spend your entire scholarly career trying to decipher the Voynich.

Ain’t that the truth, eh? *sigh*

Gerard Cheshire (yes, again)

Polyglot linguistic Voynich theorist Gerard Cheshire (whose theory I discussed here back in 2017) has hurtled into 2018 even more convinced of his utter rightness (and of everyone else’s abject wrongheadedness).

If you really, really want to read his all-new polyglot interpretation of the nine rosette page (which he calls “Tabula regio novem”, which I don’t believe is grammatical Latin, whatever Google Translate may say) which is all about Italian volcanoes, it is online here.

For those whose appetite for such things would be easily assuaged by a single dim sum, here is Cheshire’s elucidation (I hesitate to call it a decryption or translation) of the text around the bottom-left (SW) rosette:

om é naus (people and ship)
o’monas (in unity)
o’menas (take charge)
omas (mothers/babies)
o’naus (of ship)
orlaus [orlas] (to protect)
omr v asaæe [vasaie] (life-force pots: pregnant bellies)
or as (yet in)
a ele/elle a (he/she at)
a inaus [inauspitica] (inauspicious/unfavourable),
o ele e na (he/she is in)
æina (a/one)
omina (omen)
olinar (to look)
n os aus (it is)
omo na moos (man not mouse)
é ep [epousee] as (and embrace)
or e ele a opénas (an opening)
os as ar vas (thus you go)
opas (but carefully)
a réina (to the queen)
ol ar sa os aquar aisu na (to facilitate not getting wet with seawater).

J. Michael Herrmann

One little-noted Voynich theory from last year was J. Michael Herrmann’s The Voynich Manuscript is Written in Natural Language: The Pahlavi Hypothesis. Exactly as it says on the tin, it’s a linguistic Voynich theory:

Here, we provide evidence that the VM is written in natural language by establishing a relation of the Voynich alphabet and the Iranian Pahlavi script. Many of the Voynich characters are upside-down versions of their Pahlavi counterparts, which may be an effect of different writing directions. Other Voynich letters can be explained as ligatures or departures from Pahlavi with the intent to cope with known problems due to the stupendous ambiguity of Pahlavi text.

Herrmann followed that with his 2018 paper The Cannabis Page of the Voynich Manuscript. This finesses some of the claims in the 2017 paper, now suggesting that Voynichese uses an “alphabet that has similarities to Pahlavi and Mandaic script”.

The “Cannabis Page” referred to in the title is f16r:

In Herrmann’s translation (which is accompanied by extensive notes, presumably to help readers overcome the “stupendous ambiguity” of Pahlavi), the first paragraph of f16r emerges as a tirade against the evils of cannabis:

Cannabis [is] vain. Stay away from the impudent crowing man. The pipe is a debasement. Jaundice [is] the overly happy face of the adherent. [He is] puffed up with pride. Security does not come [to him]. In the evening peace of mind does not come [to him, as] the serpent of nightly lust spoils him. [What is] concealed,
will become public.

If you are interested, Herrmann’s rendering of the first paragraph of f1r is as follows:

(1) The humble grass shames you. Obediently hold the law. You cry for help for the tribunal commanded (2) for being insolent. Verily, you are frightened out of your wits by the troops in fury. Crowds and crowds of abled ones. (3) Woe, the well ordered line (of troops) is driving forward. If you see this, you will. Don’t start to count and to number the men, woe! (4) Refrain form [sic] the uneducated baldhead, the storyteller, the teaching of the “light bringer”. Remember the time of the fathers. (5) Heaven shield those who are weak for debasement. The man of doubt guide right.

If only I had an open letter I could use, if only… :-/

(Please excuse the impersonality of what follows, but so many linguistic Voynich theories are popping up at the moment that responding to them all individually would be an even greater waste of my life than trawling through their sad attempts at ‘research’: sorry, hope you understand, etc.)

Dear linguistic Voynich theorist,

Thank you so much for your fascinating [1] and generally well-researched [2] paper. Unfortunately, it seems that in your enthusiasm to publish [3], you may well have skipped past some important details that would have presented your evidence, reasoning, and conclusions in a somewhat different light.

For example, your literature review somehow omitted to mention any of the fifty-plus [4] linguistic Voynich theories that had been published previously: only the most eagle-eyed of barristers would be able to highlight how these differed from yours to any significant degree.

I was interested to note [5] that you repeated the late Stephen Bax’s opinion (perhaps without even knowing that he was the source) that it is OK for linguistic Voynich theorists to disregard all previous statistical and analytical work carried out on the Voynich Manuscript’s text. However, given that almost all of that evidence and observation runs directly counter to your linguistic Voynich theory (and indeed Bax’s as well), it is hard not to draw the conclusion that you have been more than a little [6] selective. By stepping past all the practical difficulties with reconciling Voynichese with natural languages that have been pointed out from 1950s onwards by the Friedmans and many others, it seems as though you have taken a particularly blinkered view of the challenge involved.

As to what you think comprises evidence that supports your particular linguistic reading, I’m sorry to have to point out that neither optimistically plucking words from all manner of dictionaries nor running your fragmentary and non-grammatical [7] output through Google Translate for validation constitutes ‘evidence’ in any normal sense of the word. Instead, these merely show that you are willing to throw darts at a map bindfolded and then claim to have invented the satnav. [8]

Your attempted argument as to how Voynichese’s word-forms structurally map onto the plaintext forms you highlight would have been more persuasive had you looked for evidence beyond the two or three pages from the Voynich Manuscript you restricted your attention to. In reality, had you done so you would have realized that the ‘language’ apparently employed in the Voynich Manuscript varies significantly between sections, between bifolios, and also between different page and line positions (line-initial, word-initial, word-final, line-final, labels, etc): and it turns out that the tiny subset into which you put your time is not at all representative of the rest. So your supposed ‘translation’ fails to scale up in any way at all.

Finally: given that in your paper you were unable to sustain your ‘translation’ of the (supposed) plaintext language(s) of the Voynich Manuscript beyond a handful of somewhat optimistic [9] readings, and that this is almost exactly the same level of (un)convincingness that other near-identical linguistic Voynich theories manage, it is hard [10] to feel persuaded by your claims that you have “finally peeled back the veils of secrecy on this most mysterious of manuscripts“. Instead, it seems overwhelmingly likely that you have fallen headlong into the same shallow logical traps as pretty much every linguistic Voynich theorist ever.

At this point, it would be a wonderful thing to be able to say that despite some methodological flaws and over-enthusiastic leaps to conclusion, your paper has still managed to advance our knowledge of the Voynich Manuscript. But this would not be entirely true. [11] Instead, all you have actually achieved is wasting your own time along with that of everyone else unfortunate enough to read your miserable offering: ultimately, your paper is a bland and tepid mix of pseudohistory, pseudoscience and pseudolinguistics that moves us all backwards rather than forwards in any perceivable way.

Sorry, hope you don’t mind too much, best wishes, etc, Nick


[1] This is a lie.
[2] This is a bigger lie.
[3] i.e. “slapdash haste”.
[4] Perhaps even a hundred.
[5] This is an even bigger lie.
[6] OK, “obscenely”
[7] OK, “pathetically nonsensical”
[8] It’s a good job I toned this sentence down, the first draft was a bit too strong.
[9] OK, “laughable and utterly random”
[10] OK, “so close to impossible as to make no practical difference”
[11] In fact, this would be a lie big enough to blot out the sun.

Thanks to Newsweek, Fox News, The Daily Mail and The Independent [*sigh*], some techy Canadian Voynich research is currently enjoying its day in the media sun. (Hint to authors: sorry, but based on recent evidence, it would seem that you have ~48 hours to get your next funding request submitted and approved before everyone currently cheering starts booing.)

CompSci professor Greg Kondrak and graduate student Bradley Hauer presented their research at the 2017 ACL conference, and their paper “Decoding Anagrammed Texts Written in an Unknown Language and Script” appeared in Transactions of the Association for Computational Linguistics Volume 4, Issue 1, pages 75–86 [though the PDF is freely downloadable, at least for now].

From the press coverage so far, you might think that they had CARMELed the Voynich (i.e. thrown a tame supercomputer and some kind clever-arse AI libraries at the problem): for, as the media incessantly repeat at the moment, All Human Problems Will Inevitably Yield To The Scythed Mega-Bulldozer That Is AI. But… is any of that true? Or useful? What’s actually going on here?

Behind the Kondrak and Hauer headlines

The initial question is obvious: what did Kondrak and Hauer actually do to try to crack the Voynich’s mysterious secrets that (they thought) nobody else had tried before? A quick snoop reveals that Bradley Hauer is a pretty smart crypto cookie: the simple substitution cipher solver presented in his 2014 paper “Solving Substitution Ciphers with Combined Language Models” outperforms many competing academic solutions. It does this by using both letter statistics and word lists at the same time (a) to solve Aristocrat cryptograms (i.e. ones where you know where the word boundaries are) even under mildly noisy conditions, and (b) to solve Patristocrat cryptograms (i.e. ciphertexts without spaces, though the recursive approach used to turn Patristocrats into candidate Aristocrats seems somewhat heavy-handed), before finally moving on to trying (unsuccessfully) to reproduce the kind of deniable encryption loosely proposed in Stanislaw Lem’s (1973) “Memoirs found in a bathtub”.

And here’s what Hauer looks like in real life:

So what happened before the Voynich paper was even written was that Hauer had built up a lot of software machinery for solving nicely-word-boundaried simple substitution ciphers at speed, and where some kind of mild text mangling had optionally taken place. And so it should not be a surprise that he carried this technology and approach forward, insofar as the 2016 paper tries to solve Voynichese as if it were a nicely-word-boundaried simple substitution cipher that had had its text mangled via anagramming plus optional abjad-style vowel removal. Given that as the paper’s founding presumption, all it is trying to do is evaluate which plaintext language was used if that entire presumption just happened to be correct (oh, and the transcription used was accurate).

Incidentally, the Voynich corpus used was 43 pages (“17,597 words and 95,465 characters”) of Currier-B text in the Currier transcription that one or both of Knight & Reddy had supplied, but the authors did not seem to have questioned the reliability or parsing choices behind that particular transcription. (More on this below.)

Voynich anagramming

Unlike Stephen Bax’s well-known Voynich 2014 paper (which began by gleefully flipping the bird at nearly all previous Voynich research), Kondrak and Hauer’s Voynich paper begins by covering what they consider related Voynich work (section 2.1) in a level-headed, if somewhat brief, way. The most relevant source they have for the notion that we might be looking at anagrammed text is Gordon Rugg’s 2004 paper: this floated the idea that there might be a similarity between alphabetically ordered anagrams (‘alphagrams’) and what we see in the Voynich Manuscript’s text.

Yet much has already been written about Voynich anagramming beyond this, not least William Romaine Newbold’s monstrously tangled ‘decryption’ (*shudder*). More recently, Edith Sherwood claimed both that it was a young Leonardo da Vinci who wrote the Voynich Manuscript, and that the Voynich text was written in anagrammed Italian (though so far she has mainly only tried to reconstruct Voynich plant names using her proposed scheme). As I pointed out in 2009 this seems extraordinarily unlikely to work in the way she proposes.

Arguably the most interesting previous Voynich research into anagrams (again, not mentioned by Hauer) has been that of London-based researcher and translator Philip Neal. In a (now long-lost) page he posted many years ago on the late Glen Claston’s website, Philip proposed:

Here is a transformation of plaintext into ciphertext which explains certain features of the Voynich “language”.

1. Divide a plaintext into lines
2. Sort the words of each line into alphabetical order
3. Sort the letters of each word into alphabetical order

1. one thing led to another thing last night
2. another last led night one to thing thing
3. aehnort alst del ghint eno ot ghint ghint

The result has some of the statistical properties of the Voynich text.

A. The frequency distribution of words and letters is the same as in the natural language plaintext, but the distribution of two-letter groups and two-word groups is significantly altered.
B. Words at the beginning of a ciphertext line tend to start with letters at the beginning of the alphabet. Compare the high frequency of Voynich “d” at the beginning of a line.
C. If a letter near the end of the alphabet has a tendency to be word-initial in the plaintext (e.g. German “w”), it will have a strong tendency to be the last word in a line. Compare the high frequency of Voynich “m” at the end of a line.
D. The ciphertext versions of frequent words will tend to cluster together in a line. That is, where a word such as “thing” occurs twice in the plaintext line (as in the above example) the two word sequence “ighnt ighnt” will occur, but “ighnt” may also occur elsewhere in the line as an anagram of “night”.
E. A one-letter word of ciphertext can only be an anagram of a single word of plaintext (“a” can only be an anagram of “a”) and a two-letter word of ciphertext can only be an anagram of two possible words of plaintext (“et” can only be an anagram of “et” and “te”). This means that you cannot have a ciphertext line of the pattern “… i … i … ” or of the pattern “… et … et … et …”. This principle largely holds good in the Voynich text: there are only six exceptions in the corpus of Currier’s language B.

To his credit, Philip then immediately pointed out some problems with this suggestion:

1. Voynichese words do not conform to a strict alphabetical ordering of letters (there are quite a lot of words of the pattern dshedy).
2. Voynichese words have a strong tendency to contain only one instance of a given letter, unlike any obvious candidate language for the plaintext.
3. The enciphering described is not unambiguously reversible (however I think it would work as a private aide-memoire, or as a means of establishing priority like Galileo’s well known anagram announcing his discovery of the phases of Venus)

(Philip has since instead proposed a possible grid-like constraint on the position of Voynichese letters within Voynichese ‘words’, though problems with that alternative explanation remain.)

Incidentally, Philip has also pointed to a number of places within the Voynich Manuscript where entire lines appear to have been written in a non-one-after-the-other way (i.e. unexpected line transpositions): while nobody has yet come up with a powerfully convincing explanation for the presence of “Neal keys” (sections of text typically delimited by pairs of single-leg gallows) in the top lines of pages (typically embedded ⅔ of the way across). He is a sharp observer, and these anomalies are all inconsistent with the widely-held presumption that the text we are looking at here is completely unmangled.

Ultimately, though, it remains a sizeable step (or three, or indeed more) to go from anywhere here to Hauer’s presumption that what we are looking at is straightforwardly anagrammed text in a conventional European language, whether abjad or not.

The actual Voynich research gap

If asked for the single largest methodological problem with Voynich research, I would point to the way that Voynich researchers tend to make a series of unfounded assumptions:
(a) the transcription they are using is perfectly reliable;
(b) the way that they parse that transcription (i.e. into tokens) is correct – there are many hidden linkages here which are each probably sufficient to derail any decryption attempt;
(c) the candidate plaintext languages they consider are genuinely representative of the Voynich Manuscript’s plaintext;
(d) no other textual transformations are present;
(e) the putative hypothetical transformation that they just happen to have plucked from the air and which they are testing is precisely that which is present in the Voynich Manuscript; and
(f) the output of their reverse transformation will be straightforward text that can be read and marvelled over by historians.

In the case of Kondrak and Hauer, I hope it should be clear that they have fallen foul of every one of these issues in turn: and their paper is all the worse for it. It is one thing to note in passing that Esperanto’s “extreme morphological regularity […] yields an unusual bigram character language model which fits the repetitive nature of the VMS words” (p.83), but it would be quite another to point out that this might easily have arisen from the way that Voynichese needs to be parsed in order for it to make sense: and it is this apparent lack of perception of the practical difficulties that all Voynich decryptors face that devalues the genuinely good work that went into their paper.

What particularly frustrates me is that in spite of these many issues, there are plenty of ways Voynich researchers can make genuine progress towards understanding what is going on: but, rather, they instead persist in trying to airball their own personal Voynich match-winner from the other end of the basketball court. They seem seduced by the glamour of being The One Who Solved The Voynich, instead of getting on with the graft of making a difference to what we know. 🙁

Yet computational linguistics has such a rich toolbox (of which CARMEL is merely one small screwdriver) that it surely has ample capacity to at least try to bridge all the actual research gaps that people are falling into, e.g.:

* What is the right way to parse EVA into tokens? (e.g. is EVA ‘or’ two tokens or one? is EVA ‘cth’ three tokens, two tokens, or one? etc)
* How does Currier A map to Currier B? And what about all the subtypes of each of these?
* What are the differences between them and “Currier C”? (Rene Zandbergen’s term for labelese)
* Can we determine whether line-initial letters are likely reliable or unreliable?
* Are words abbreviated (e.g. is EVA y some kind of truncation symbol)? If so, are A and B abbreviated in exactly the same way?
* etc

If people had the intellectual good sense to stop trying to fly over all these separate hurdles all at the same time in a Steve Austin-style 100m leap of misplaced faith, we might start to make real progress. However, even when researchers do have the necessary brains to make progress (as Hauer clearly has), it seems they have insufficient strength of mind to not be tempted by the glamour of the big ticket “Researchers Crack Voynich Manuscript” headline. 🙁

Because last year’s Voynich research brought me a step closer to German calendars, I finally got round to reading Ernst Zinner’s epic “Regiomontanus: His Life and Works” (or, rather, to Ezra Brown’s 1990 translation of the same).

On the one hand, Zinner is crushingly magisterial, in both tone and deep attention to detail (though the appendices by other scholars do sometimes highlight Zinner’s occasional dependence on others’ unreliable translations). Yet on the other hand, it is a style of writing characterized by what is clearly a passionate drive to understand Regiomontanus within his cultural, scientific, and mathematical context.

Say what you like about Zinner, but you could never accuse him of skimming the surface of the subject: as the old joke goes, he’s definitely more bacon than eggs (i.e. where “the chicken is involved but the pig is committed”).

Peuerbach and nocturnals

I’ve written a number of times before about how I strongly suspect that the circular drawing on f57v had a ring of letter groups that was originally made up of 4 x 18 symbols, but where the first two letter shapes of each set of eighteen were subsequently joined together into odd gallows-like characters to turn the sequence into a (far more mysterious) 4 x 17 letter-group sequence. Quite why the author did that is not known, but it would seem to me to have been done to conceal the extrinsic 4 x 18 structure.

Why, you may ask, would a 4 x 18 ring be a giveaway? This, in my opinion, is because 360 degrees / (4 x 18) = 5 degrees, which is the kind of explicit marking you would see on an astrolabe-like instrument of some sort. And because one of the secret astrolabe-like instruments of the mid-fifteenth century was the “nocturnal”, “nocturlabe” or “stardial” (astrolabes themselves were hardly secret by that time), I have long wondered whether what was depicted here was this specific instrument.

And so I was fascinated to read the following brief note in Zinner (pp.26-26), in his discussion of Georg Peuerbach (Regiomontanus’ mentor and teacher):

From 1455 on, there existed “stardials” [nocturnals] to tell time at night by means of the Pole Star and two stars {the “pointers”} in Ursa Major.

The footnote reference Zinner gives for this is: “Ernst von Bassermann-Jordan. Uhren. Berlin, 1922. Figure on page 21.” And so I went off (eventually) to have a look for this specific edition.

It turns out that von Bassermann-Jordan was a well-known clock and watch collector, whose classic book (“Uhren”) on the subject was reprinted many times. I was therefore delighted to find out that I could order a relatively cheap print-on-demand copy of the exact same 1922 version that Zinner referenced, and speedily sent off my money.

I must admit to having been a little bit surprised when a padded envelope appeared covered in Indian stamps (I must admit to having wondered whether it was a coincidence that “Uhren” was an anagram of “Nehru”), but that’s globalization for you.

Even though the print-on-demand book cover was really quite nice, the quality of the scans inside was unfortunately more than a little disappointing in places. But even so, I could now try to find what von Bassermann-Jordan said on page 21 that Zinner remarked upon. Sadly, this was one of the many places where the scans became somewhat unrecognizable by the right-hand edge.

Yet because I was able to use Google to search for “Orientierung der Horizontalsonnenuhren” on the same page, this yielded three hits on, including the 1922 edition I had just bought. (There was also a 1914 edition and a 1920 edition). Unsurprisingly, the 1922 edition was (without any real doubt) the source of the somewhat mangled scans for the Indian POD company, so I can show you what I was trying to read, direct from the source:

Even so, this meant that I was able to find the same thing in the (much clearer, and significantly more readable) 1920 edition of “Uhren”, so that you can hopefully see the structure of the nocturnal (dated “1456”) much more clearly:

I presume that this is referring to the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich, which (encouragingly) has a collection of scientific instruments. However, I wasn’t able to find the one depicted in its object database (and I suspect Zinner wasn’t able to find it either), but perhaps one of my German readers will have more luck than me. 🙂

Other nocturnals

A very good source for the history of the nocturnal is Günther Oestmann’s (2001) “On The History of the Nocturnal“. Oestmann notes that the idea that the nocturnal was first invented in China has been comprehensively debunked, and that it is instead a European invention – there are no Arabic nocturnals from the Middle Ages. There was also a predecessor to the nocturnal (a sighting tube and disk, described by Pacificus in the 10th century), but the more compact hand-held nocturnal was clearly a far more usable version of the same thing.

The “V2.0” idea of nocturnals had actually been discussed as early as the 12th century (though few seem to have been actually built). Raymon Lull mentions the nocturnal in his Nova geometria (1299), and the device was made famous by Peter Apian’s 16th century printed book:

But documentation on nocturnals between Lull and the 1456 nocturnal noted by von Bassermann-Jordan and Zinner seems quite thin. Oestmann lists all the 15th century nocturnal manuscripts he is aware of, together with references (not included here) to where they are mentioned in Zinner’s (1925) “Verzeichnis der astronomischen Handschriften des deutschen Kulturgebietes“:

* Wolfenbüttel, HAB: Cod. Guelf. 81.26 Aug. 2°, fol. 144v (Use of the Nocturnal, Latin 1461)
* Göttingen, UB: 2° Philos. 42m, fol. 55r/v .00 (Johann v. Gmunden [?], Construction of the Nocturnal, in a collection of astronomical texts, 15th cent.)
* Würzburg, UB: M. ch. q. 132, fol. 153v-154v, 155v (Construction of the Nocturnal, Latin, in a collection of astronomical texts, late 15th cent.)
* Leipzig, UB: Cod. 1469, fol. 201r-207r (Construction of the Nocturnal, Latin, in a collection of astronomical texis, 14-15th cent.)
* Munich, Bayer. StB: Clm 24105, fol.65v-67r (Use of the Nocturnal, German, in a collection of astronomical texts, 15/16th cent.)
* Munich, Bayer. StB: Clm 214, fol. 167r-185v (Construction of the Nocturnal, Latin, in a collection of astronomical tables, 15th cent.)
* Bern, Burgerbibl.: Cod. 157 fol. 27v-28v (Construction and Use of the Nocturnal, Latin, 15th cent.)
* Zürich, Zentralbibl.: Ms. C 107, fol. 107r/v (Wilhelm Hofer, Carthusian monk and pupil of Georg Peuerbach), Construction and Use of the Nocturnal, Latin, Gaming (Lower Austria) 1472/79); see L. C. Mohlberg, Mittelalterliche Handschriften (= Katalog der Zentralbibliothek Zürich, vol. I), Zürich 1951, p.55f., 361).
* Ottobeuren, Klosterbibl.: Ms. II, 319, fol. 122-123 (Construction of the Nocturnal, 15th cent.)
* Meiningen, Landesbibl.: Pd 32.44, fol. 92r-98v, 104r-105v (Construction of the Nocturnal, 15th cent.)

Oestmann also mentions Chartres MS 214 (olim 173; destroyed in 1944), which looked like this, though note that it actually belongs to the earlier “sighting tube” tradition from Pacificus:

But because Oestmann relies on Zinner, who in turn was only looking at astronomical manuscripts within the German cultural orbit, there are doubtless many more to be found. For example, there’s a nice volvelle nocturnal in fol. 25r of MS Ashmole 370, an English manuscript dated ~1424 that I’d really like to see the rest of one day:

If anyone is aware of a better / more recent / more pan-European source on the 12th-15th century history of the nocturnal / nocturlabe than Oestmann, please let me know!

“Stretched out arms”

For Voynich researchers, I would argue that the single most extraordinarily interesting paragraph in Oestmann’s paper is as follows:

Closely connected with the history of the nocturnal are certain diagrams in nautical texts, which served as mnemonic devices for the correction of the measured altitude of the Pole Star. The position of α and β Ursae minoris respectively α and β Ursae maioris, often called ‘Guards’, indicated the correction to reduce the observed Pole Star altitude to obtain latitude. A man with stretched out arms standing in the Pole was used. If the Guards were found over his head the Pole Star stood 3°5′ under the Celestial Pole and vice versa. The two arms marked the side deviations and also intermediate positions were recorded in mnemonic verses.

Given that f57v specifically depicts people with stretched out arms (at the top and the bottom), I suspect that this is an avenue of research that is well worth pursuing further:

Oestmann’s footnote #17 gives as his source:

See for example the Regimento do Norte (probably composed in the 15th century; München, Bayer, StB: 4° Inc., 1551). On the nautical ‘Regiments’ see Joaquim Bensaude, L’astronomie nautique au Portugal à l’époque des grandes de couvertes (Bern, 1912/17, repr. Amterdam 1967), pp. 136-145, 223f.; Hermann Wagner ‘Die Entwicklung der wissenschaftlichen Nautik im Beginn des Zeitalters der Entdeckungen nach neuern Anschauungen’, Annalen der Hydrographie und Maritimen Meteorologie, 46 (1918), pp. 215-220.

I’ve noticed a number of things about the Paul Rubin ciphertext, which are definitely beyond what the FBI’s cryptanalysts managed to find. Please feel free to advance these yet further!

The Paul Rubin Ciphertext

Here’s my transcription, as posted on the Cipher Foundation website, but with the individual lines numbered:

[01] digIs sawthn'g mathUlley-Dulles crancklavn' meteore iElli
[02] zheaopfvamn greA'Lltenmn
[03] kKiqtu albawmnabs dzhjellEiE matel ungdreabozvmie oie
[04] sprekln meIktrene fodroscolmn oeir
[05] *driEk Conant astereantol Iyvondiolon
[06] desceth megleagna mAlzbourgnion grele

[07] newtdo sfoatzdexklagh 2pont ¼ly asgestaltverbensdi

[08] 7469921
[09] 100.011x100.10x.10011.1.xx0.101.x.001011.101x1011.1001..10x1

[10] 01.001011x10.1x.11101.x1.001x1.001001

[11] 0.101.x.101110.x101.1101101.0101x1.1011

[12] Want: datum Tywood Janossey Ketelle

[13] R-QR6
[14]                aliacaui PER

The Last Two Words

It seems almost certain that “PER” stands for “Paul Emanuel Rubin”, which gives us a reasonable amount of confidence that this is a real ciphertext Rubin himself had made.

Rubin liked reading science fiction, and repeatedly claimed to be a member of a “Brooklyn Astrophysics Society”: however, despite asking a lot of people, the FBI were unable to turn up any reference to any such society – Rubin seems to have dreamed this up completely. So there is (I think) good reason to suspect that we might find obscure references to science fiction and/or imagined science embedded in this ciphertext.

And in fact this is exactly what we find on line [14]. The word immediately before PER – “aliacaui” – comes from a 1950 novelette by Poul Anderson called “The Helping Hand“, that first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction:

Valka Vahino sat in his garden and let sunlight wash over his bare skin. It was not often, these days, that he got a chance to aliacaui… What was that old Terrestrial word? “Siesta”? But that was wrong. A resting Cundaloan didn’t sleep in the afternoon. He sat or lay outdoors, with the sun soaking into his bones or a warm rain like a benediction over him, and he let his thoughts run free. Solarians called that daydreaming, but it wasn’t, it was, well — they had no real word for it. Psychic recreation was a clumsy term, and the Solarians never understood.

In the story, “Aliacaui” is a central concept to the Cundaloans, one which the hard-working Solarians (machine-culture humans) find difficult to grasp:

“For instance, just this matter of the siesta. Right now, all through this time zone on the planet, hardly a wheel is turning, hardly a machine is tended, hardly a man is at his work. They’re all lying in the sun making poems or humming songs or just drowsing. There’s a whole civilization to be built, Vahino! There are plantations, mines, factories, cities abuilding — you just can’t do it on a four-hour working day.”

So this is the single word from the Science Fiction universe that Paul Rubin valued so much that he used it as a farewell in his note: “Aliacaui”, meaning lying around “making poems or humming songs or just drowsing”. Really, you couldn’t make it up.

The Codebook Indices

I’d also immediately point out that lines [01]-[07] almost certainly each use a different codebook entry, and that the seven codebook indices for them are on line [08] – 7469921. It seems likely (though not yet proven) that these are the indices in the order the lines appear.

Furthermore, lines [09]-[12] each almost certainly use a different codebook entry, and that the four codebook indices for these are on line [13] – R-QR6.

Hence, the three “binary”-like lines would seem to be codebook entries “R-QR”, while all the other lines’ codebook indices are digits: 7469921 and 6. I pointed this out to Craig Bauer before his book came out, but it was (alas) too late to update his Paul Rubin chapter.

Still, knowing this should help us avoid many pointless cryptanalytical tests: for example, there would seem to be no point in carrying out any test that combines a binary-like line with a text-like line, because they would seem to be using completely different types of codebook.

The Three Binary-Like Lines

If the 0s and 1s in these lines are binary, I noticed something a little odd about them: specifically, that they contain are no instances of ‘000’, and only two instances of ‘111’.

I therefore wondered whether the ‘.’ and ‘x’ character be standing in for ‘000’ or ‘0000’, and ‘111’ or ‘1111’? I converted various permutations for line [09] (the longest binary-like line) into the corresponding streams of pure binary digits, and then ran them through index of coincidence tests online.

[09] 100.011x100.10x.10011.1.xx0.101.x.001011.101x1011.1001..10x1

However, I don’t have a positive result yet (the IoC probably isn’t the most reliable test for this kind of thing, but I thought it was worth a try), but if you happen to be looking at this part of the ciphertext, I think this currently seems like the most likely route to an answer.

The Letter Ciphers

According to Cipher Mysteries commenter Thomas, “Conant and B.H. Ketelle were members of the Manhattan Project. Janossy was a Hungarian nuclear physicist at the same time. Tywood is a professor of Nuclear Physics in Isaac Asimov’s short story ‘The Red Queen’s Race’ from 1949.”

Indeed, Asimov describes Elmer (Pop) Tywood in his short story as “Ph.D., Sc.D., Fellow of This and Honorary That, one-time youthful participant of the original Manhattan Project, and now full Professor of Nuclear Physics.”

Unfortunately, “Elmer Tywood was dead. He lay next to the table; his face congested, nearly black. No radiation effect. No external force of any sort. The doctor said apoplexy. […] In Elmer Tywood’s office safe were found two puzzling items: i.e. twenty foolscap sheets of apparent mathematics, and a bound folio in a foreign language which turned out to be Greek, the subject matter, on translation, turning out to be chemistry.”

Mysterious deaths and Manhattan Project physicists were therefore at the forefront of Paul Rubin’s mind: my suspicion is therefore that Rubin’s book of words that would drive his code project may well turn out to be a list of names of members of his imaginary Brooklyn Astrophysics Society. We’ll probably never see it, of course: but it is what it is.

Back in 2015, I blogged about the ciphertext that was found taped to Paul Rubin’s stomach, and also wondered whether Rubin might have suffered from paranoid schizophrena, and whether the FBI would ever release his code-tables. On a larger scale, given that we only had a single scratchy newspaper photograph of his cipher to work with, it seemed that we were unlikely to make huge progress.

Well, a lot of that has now changed.

Craig Bauer’s “Unsolved!”

Craig Bauer’s (2017) “Unsolved!” covers a good number of cipher mysteries with a particular focus on Americana, and so his book covers the Paul Rubin case on pp.289-304. Very kindly, he passed me the following (much clearer) scan to work with, that his book had reproduced at a fairly small size:

Hence I’ve added a page on the Paul Rubin Cipher to the Cipher Foundation website: this also includes my transcription of the cipher, as well as (thanks to Albert Mock) a copy of Rubin’s death certificate and details of his grave.

Arguably even more importantly, however, Craig Bauer also received a 160-page document set from the FBI following a Freedom of Information Act request (though this arrived too late for him to use in his book), which is now also linked on the Cipher Foundation webpage – and this is where our real research begins.

Paul Rubin’s FBI File

A number of suggestions as to the possible contents of the cipher appear in the FBI file: that it might be written in cable language, that it might contain cribs for a chemistry examination, and so forth. It also lists (p.25) possibly the first nutty theory about the cipher, courtesy of Mrs L. Rohe Walker, 2 Beekman Place, New York 22, NY.

For me, though, one particularly interesting aspect of the file is that it details (on p.66) the specific sequence that the FBI’s cryptanalysts followed to try to understand Rubin’s ciphertext (though without success). It starts by listing the languages FBI linguists tried: “Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, German, Hungarian, Finnish, Latinair [?], Lettuishuan [?], Turkish, Portuguese, Rumanian, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Malayan, Albanian.” They also “[t]ried to develop words phonetically and as abbreviations, with no success.”.

It then moves onto cryptanalysis, firstly listing the “Direct Cipher” methods they looked for (all with negative results):

a. Monoalphabetic Subst.
b. Transposition – uniliteral
c. Partial encipherment with & without nulls
d. Typewriter displacement
e. Combination subst + Transp + nulls + partial encipherment
f. Commercial word codes
g. False language
( 3 books from Library of Congress:
( * “On the Choice of a Common Language”
( * “Method [?] to Esperanto”
( * “A Planned Auxiliary Language”
h. Binary substitution as superencipherment

It then lists the “Open Codes” they looked for, firstly for letters mapped across the whole specimen:

(1) Constant key positions 2-25 (Entire specimen)
(2) 1st, 2nd, 3rd …. final letters of words, initial letters – forward and reversed alphabets
(3) Beginnings & endings of lines (+10 and -10 letters)
(4) Numerical key 7469921 as letter positions
(5) Capital letters, including letters to right & left

Next they looked for words embedded in the entire specimen:

(1) Constant key positions
Also 1st, 2nd letters of constant keyed words 2-10

They moved on to search for possible “Distorted Words”:

2PONT = Dupont
1/4ly = Quarterly
KETELLE = Catelle (psychologist) ?

They also looked for possible names, cross-referencing them in the FBI files (e.g. for B. H. KETELLE):

TYWOOD-JANOSSEY-KETELLE [lists FBI document references]
IVAN DIOLON (negative)

Next, they list various observations made by the cryptanalysts. This for me is the most interesting part by far (note that ‘Q5’ is the reference names for this ciphertext within the bundle of evidence made available to the FBI):

1. Peculiar letter combinations of contacts.
a. Phonetic & pronounceable but unintelligible. Hebrew/Yiddish influence observable.
b. Doubled letters – with “KK” at beginning of one word.
c. “MN” digram, occurring 3 times at end of words.

2. General letter frequency:
A = 21, B = 5, C = 4, D = 11, E = 35, F = 3, G = 10, H = 6, I = 15, J = 1, K = 7, L = 23, M = 10
N = 21, O = 17, P = 3, Q = 1, R = 13, S = 12, T = 15, U = 5, V = 5, W = 3, X = 1, Y = 3, Z = 5
2 = 1

3. “Digits” at bottom of Q5 not in organized form. “X” and “.” appear haphazardly. Makes no sense in attempts to convert binary to digits.

1. Letter frequencies and pronounceability indicate phonetic composition.
a. May be syllable, phonetic, or artificial word code. If so, material is insufficient for analysis.
b. letter material looks like irrational or unsystematic composition

2. Digits have irrational composition. Positions of “X” and “.” do not assist solution. Concentrated efforts on “Binary”, produced no significant results. If digit code on cipher underlying binary, material is insufficient.

Is It A Real Cipher?

On the one hand, the parents “did state, however, that there were a number of papers of a similar nature in their home in Brooklyn. They stated also […] that Benjamin Birnbaum […] would undoubtedly be able to furnish information concerning the ‘coded note.’ ” Later: “Mrs Rubin stated that her son and his friend, Benjamin Birnbaum, often exchanged “notes” similar to the one found taped to the subject’s abdomen when he was found.” (p.17). Yet “BIRNBAUM advised that he never sent to nor received a coded message from deceased” (p.29).

Rubin was also fascinated by binary. Birnbaum “stated that the deceased talked of using a word unit code with numbers for each word. The numbers would then be transmitted into the binary code. BIRNBAUM advised that the binary code is a code used on all calculating machines. He stated that the deceased was going to use another stage of transmitting this code unknown to BIRNBAUM.” (p.35)

I think it is abundantly clear from the file that Paul Rubin and Bernard Birnbaum did communicate by means of cipher, even if Birnbaum strenuously denied this under interview. Rubin and Birnbaum thought that everyone else was not only stupid, but deserved to be treated as stupid (and said so in the interview): so if Birnbaum treated the FBI as stupid, we should perhaps not be surprised.

In my opinion, the cipher would seem to be completely genuine and that Paul Rubin’s parents and Bernard Birnbaum did initially have access to Paul Rubin’s codebook. However, I strongly suspect that they chose to destroy it rather than give it to the government, lest the ciphertext reveal something unsavoury about the dead student’s end – better for him to die in mystery than in possible ignominy.

Just before Christmas, I went up to London for what is rapidly becoming a very traditional slice of overdone turkey at the BFI IMAX cinema. I refer, of course, to the third Disney Star Wars film, “The Last Jedi”.

According to my son, the first Disney Star Wars film was two hours of recapitulation (noble if you are trying to save the planet by recycling, but a bit sad otherwise), while the second Disney Star Wars film was two hours of filler (how did knowing anything that happened in that film improve our lives?). For me, the third Disney Star Wars film was two hours of technofetishist panto: and so the two stand-out performances were by those actors who grasped they were trapped in a panto and chose to embrace it in all its awfulness – Yoda and General Armitage Hux. If anything, Yoda believable slightly of the two the more was: but quote me don’t on that. 😉

What next, two hours of sitcom? Two hours of lightweight romantic comedy? Perhaps I’m being unfair, but it all seems to me to cast a harsh raking light across modern screenwriters’ apparent inability to explore Good vs Evil in any mode apart from full-on cartoon schtick. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to have paid the money to go see a well-executed fantasy on a beautiful giant screen: but nonetheless, Very Big Holes Remain.

And On To Shrek

While we were walking around the South Bank, I noticed a poster for a DreamWorks Shrek Experience show at the old City Hall:

I couldn’t quite believe my eyes, so had to take a closer look:

Yes, it would seem to be correct that the British domestic security service is doing some kind of outreach via a green animated Scottish ogre character. Having previously struggled to maintain interest in The GCHQ Puzzle Book not so long ago, whatever do I have to look forward to next?