The Voynich Challenge

A Strange Proposal

dungeon map

Photo by Dru!

I wrote the following text a while ago with the idea in mind to put it up as a challenge on a place like Quora but then it got too lengthy and also too implicative. Reading it now it sounds more like the intro to a text based adventure game.



Let’s suppose you receive a strange proposal. Your task is to create a large body of text, split into several parts varying in length from single sentences to several pages, around 200.000 characters in all. The actual content is not important but it should appear meaningful. The text must appear to be written in an ancient, yet unknown language. This is crucial, it needs to be absolutely indiscernible from a real, existing ancient language, even to experts on the field and should hold up under scrutiny for at least a few decades. The reward is tempting so you don’t ask questions and agree to the assignment. Your timeframe is about 12 months.
You receive a batch of papers containing texts as a source of inspiration and a few hints like a list of keywords to use in different contexts, that it would do no harm if fragments of some words and sentences would appear here & there and the suggestion to encrypt parts of it to your liking. You could sometimes make it look lexical or otherwise copy the structure of some of the texts.
Which prove as a random collection of all sorts of different things, single words, names, lists of all sorts, quotes, poems, hymns, meditations, recipes, tractates, short essays, you name it. Mostly they are in latin, some in english. Some are in languages you only know of like ancient greek and some in what you can only guess to be aztec or ancient hebrew. A few remain undiscernible but this does not matter because they are nicely transcribed into latin characters, sometime with markings for extra characters of the originating language which do not have a latin equivalent. It comes in handy that you are asked to deliver your text in latin characters.
Of course there are some limitations. Your use of tools is restricted to pen & paper, dice, slide-rule & abacus (or digital simulations of such). Now here’s the real challenge: You can only use scientific knowledge that has been around until 1910 (it’s best you imagine living at that time). For example, Markov published in 1906 but it is unclear if you can use Markov chains because you do not have a computer. At the very most you have access to a Hollerith machine (or rather the virtual pendant).
How would you go about it?

I would like a really good Voynich game, I guess I’m not alone. So if you’re a talented MUD developer with lots of time on your hands, let us know!

Mysterious Mr. Voynich, Means & Motive

A Living Legend

Wilfrid Voynich seems to have been a man of many talents, one of which obviously was to evoke the air of myth & legend surrounding his person – a feat not many people achieve during their lifetime. Left out the finding of a curious manuscript his adventurous life story alone would have qualified him to be acknowledged by history. To some, the latter seems to have been one of his central ambitions (and it poses an excellent motive for a concerted manuscript forgery).

Karl May als Old Shatterhand.

Karl May as Old Shatterhand
Photo: Karl May Gesellschaft

Mr. Voynich also seemed to have a hunch on public relations. Almost all of relevant biographical information regarding him is brought to us courtesy of Wilfrid Voynich himself. The same applies to all information regarding the manuscript, by the way. I can’t help but get reminded on Karl May: Both men start their careers out of a prison, with a strong will to become someone else and a decisive strategy to generate the necessary background. Mr. Voynich seems to have had it all sketched out. That’s probably what makes his story appear somewhat schematic.

Another astonishing feat Wilfrid Voynich managed to pull off, perhaps unintentionally so, was to make the story of his finding “viral”. The Voynich Complex seems like the source code for an application that gets processed over and over again by it’s applicants, the researchers, theorists and interpreters. Unintentionally, because The Voynich probably failed to fulfil its function to Wilfrid Voynich, whatever his real intent may have been.

smoking gun photo

Photo by PG.NETO

It is interesting that Wilfrid Voynich did not always possess one necessary ingredient for grand undertakings, namely money. His swift progress from penniless dissident to respected book dealer is another remarkable transition.  To some, there is a temporal confluence of a lengthy stay in northern Italy, the arrival of considerable wealth, and the finding of the manuscript.

Whats more.. Voynich was a studied chemist and pharmacist, said to have been engaged in the matter of medieval inks and pigments during his studies. Purportedly he used cipher in his Warsaw dissident days (although not good ones since all of them got decrypted). By standards of his trade and his times he WAS a manuscript expert, with access to a wealth of scriptures perfectly suitable as source of inspiration for his masterpiece.  A possible collaborator, and also lover of Voynich’s wife, Georgi Rosenblum, a.k.a “Ace of Spies” Sidney Reilly is said to also have been studying the matter of ancient inks.

binary photo

Photo by mikecogh

The outlines of the marriage between Wilfrid and Ethel Voynich speak more of calculation than of romance. While some argue the marriage was a planned step-up for Voynich, it is also interesting to note that his spouse was daughter to the english mathematician, philosopher and logician George Boole. It may only be an odd coincidence, Boole died long before Wilfrid & Ethel met. Or it may have been another opportunity to get acquainted with some concepts that could prove useful later on, like the binary number system.

So much to my smoking guns. I deliberately left all the claims in this article unsourced because I don’t think most of them are of a lot of relevance to the matter of finding out what The Voynich actually is. Maybe some of the clues could help, like the Boole(an)-Connection.

The Voynich Circular Animations

A Good Question – Almost

Recently I thought to have made an observation on The Voynich (actually an impulse to start this blog), which lead me to formulate a good question – so I thought.

About 8 minutes into the 2009 ORF documentary on The Voynich there is a short part showing 3 animated clips derived from some of the circularly arranged illustrations. Clip 1 and 2 simply rotate circular illustrations, or figures in The Voynich, where clip 1 seems to be made up from page 67. The rotation is directed counter-clockwise. Clip 3 is slightly more advanced, in that a frame mask is applied. Adding intermittent dark frames would almost qualify it as a real animation.1 I can’t determine the source pages for clips 2 & 3 (yet).

The sparse commentary simply states that optic phenomena are hidden in the illustrations that come to life when rotated. There’s not much more to be found out about the matter as it seemingly failed to attract any attention. Optics, animations & the like belong to my interests so it stuck with me.

Phenakistoscope Disc designed by Edward Sang, Beinecke's Library

Phenakistoscope Disc designed by Edward Sang, Beinecke’s Library

A while ago I visited an exhibition called “Eyes, Lies and Illusions“, featuring some simple animation devices, antecessor of cinematography like a Praxinoscope, some making use of round cards with circularly arranged drawings in a way quite similar to The Voynichs’ “round tables”. Hence my connection: If these illustrations are  ment to be animated then there must exist a viewing apparatus for it, an animation device.

I did some research and found a first pitfall: All designs I looked at had rotating cards, unsuitable for the subject at hand, a book. I thought up a possible way to circumvent this problem (inside mirrors rotating in a planet gear) and even considered the possibility that an actual device never existed, yet in “ideal” form. To be found, like an easter egg in software, only by “users” (researchers) clever enough to uncover & reconstruct the necessary mechanism.

Nevertheless I felt I had something and formulated my question as:

If they are genuine, what is the purpose of the circular illustrations encoding animations?

You will notice that the “if” already disqualifies it as a good question according to my own terms.. and more ifs to come.

I asked Rich SantaColoma, who is into optics and was featured in the documentary. He kindly took the time to answer:

(…) it was not intended to be animated in the first place. There have been those who, even before the documentary artists pulled this off, thought that this could be the intent of these images. So to some people, they are somewhat “evocative” of these type of moving images.

He also pointed out the wealth of possible influences involved in creating The Voynich, especially those contemporary of the late 19th century.

So I retreated to my “if”, the necessity to find out if all or some the illustrations are actually ment to be animated, a task not devoid of quite some effort. I had a similar suspicion towards the film production crew as the source of the clips and a certain reason why the examples were short & few in number.

voynich photo

Photo by lamont_cranston

In the meantime, looking at the illustrations it turns out not a lot of them lend themselves easily to the animation idea, while a few really do seem to be ment to move. And I have overlooked another thing: I have fallen to the common error to misjudge the rather modest physical dimensions of The Voynich book, which are about that of a paperback (not as small as The Micro-Voynich in the picture) . Hence the animations would turn out rather tiny. I guess this size restriction rules out an actually existing viewing apparatus.

My partner remarked that this circumstance would be negligible if The Voynich was created with the idea of spreading photographic enlargements of it already in mind. Interesting point there, Wilfrid Voynich took the book to the darkroom first thing. This is probably another implication of The Voynich 1910 dating.

Another way to save my question would be to reformulate it towards the reason for circular illustrations (charts, tables, figures..) to begin with, if not time-related, which the majority of them does not seem to be. It complicates reading (have to turn book around) and creation (needs gauge screen and to rotate sheets) and points to another question, that of The Voynich Rebinding. It is an observation that some of the illustrations are slightly to large to fit on a page so a certain overlap is left as not to simply cut them off. Hence hey must have been created before the rebinding / rearrangement of the vellum sheets.

Another path would be to try tracking different, older sources of inspiration for the circular drawings. After all, The Voynich was supposed to look ancient. Encyclopedia Britannica says Michael Faraday looked into the phenomenon, and so did Mr. Isaac Newton (unsourced). Traces of the concept are even to be found in Leonardo’s work.

Read more on The Wheel of Life

The Voynich Bombe

How would Alan Turing approach The Voynich?

Alan Turing Sculpture

Photo by joncallas

Would he come up with a logical Bombe, like he did for the Enigma? A metaphorical brute-force attack, this time machined into software? Would he try to formalise all problems and develop a Voynich Test, maybe to be held annually, where every year we would see theory after theory fail the test..

I’m afraid there won’t be an actual machine readily cracking The Voynich Code for us. Rather we are looking at a Voynich Complex with a Voynich Blackbox in the center, all of which seem rather unquantifiable.. unless we had some good AI (wishful thinking).

It may be a little acknowledged fact that while Turing devised a generalised approach and greatly improved the concept, the Bombes’ original inventor is yet another genius named Marian Rejewski of the Polish Cryptography Office. Examining the Enigma’s patterns he found a cryptological weakness that enabled him to reconstruct the apparatus. His “Bomba Kryptologiczna” successfully cracked the Enigma model of 1933.

Marian Rejewski Sculpture

Photo by Pete Reed

The Bombe represents a fascinating concept. It is a reverse engineered reconstruction of the Enigmas inner workings, an approach that could prove useful in attacking The Voynich. While this has already been facilitated in the past (see Hyde and Rugg) with promising results it seems that a more generalised approach keeping the larger picture of The Voynich in mind would be required.

The British & US Bombes were sophisticated electro-mechanical devices that developed together with the problem they were designed to solve, the Enigma. They only made sense when deployed in large number. Rejewskis undertaking sounds more rustic:

A machine called the “bombe” is used to expedite the solution. The first machine was built by the Poles and was a hand operated multiple enigma machine. When a possible solution was reached a part would fall off the machine onto the floor with a loud noise. Hence the name “bombe”.1

A different version goes that Rejewski named his baby after a certain ice cream creation sold in vicinity of his office.

Read more on the history of the Enigma and the Bombe.