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The Man Who Cracked The Mystery Of The Voynich Manuscript

Joseph D'Agnese

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Two years ago, an Englishman named Gordon Rugg slipped back in time. Night after night he spread his papers on the kitchen table once his children had gone to bed. Working on faux parchment with a steel-nibbed calligraphic pen, he scribbled a strange, unidentifiable, vaguely medieval script. Transliterated into the Roman alphabet, some of the words read: "qopchedy qokedydy qokoloky qokeedy qokedy shedy." As he wrote, he struggled to get inside the mind of the person who had first scrawled this incomprehensible text some 400 years ago.

By day, Rugg, a 48-year-old psychologist, teaches in the computer science department of Keele University, near Manchester, England. By night, as an intellectual exercise, he has been researching one of the world's great oddities: the Voynich manuscript, a hand-lettered book written in an unknown code that has frustrated cryptographers since its discovery in an Italian villa in 1912. How impregnable is the Voynich? During World War II, US Army code breakers - the guys who blew away Nazi ciphers - grappled with the manuscript in their spare time and came up empty. Since then, decoding the book's contents has become an obsession for geeks and puzzle nuts everywhere.

Then came Rugg. In three months, he cooked up the most persuasive explanation yet for the 234-page text: Sorry, folks, there is no code - it's a hoax! Lifelong Voynichologists were impressed with his reasoning and proofs, even if they were a little chagrined. "The Voynich is such a challenge," says Rugg, "such a social activity. But then along comes someone who says 'Oh, it's just a lot of meaningless gibberish.' It's as if we're all surfers, and the sea has dried up."

When the news of Rugg's breakthrough was published last winter, everyone missed the bigger story. Rugg cracked the Voynich not because he was smarter, but because he focused on what everyone else had missed. Then again, this came naturally to Rugg: He has made a career out of studying how experts acquire knowledge yet screw up nevertheless. In 1996, he and his colleagues developed a rigorous method for peering over the shoulders of experts - doctors, software engineers, pilots, physicists - watching how they work and think, testing their logic, and uncovering ways to help them solve problems.

This article appeared in Wired magazine. Read the entire article on the Rense.com website.

Posted: 9/9/04



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