Behold the Mysterious Voynich Manuscript: The 15th-Century Text That Linguists & Code-Breakers Can’t Understand

A 600-year-old manuscript—written in a script no one has ever decoded, filled with cryptic illustrations, its origins remaining to this day a mystery…. It’s not as satisfying a plot, say, of a National Treasure or Dan Brown thriller, certainly not as action-packed as pick-your-Indiana Jones…. The Voynich Manuscript, named for the antiquarian who rediscovered it in 1912, has a much more hermetic nature, somewhat like the work of Henry Darger; it presents us with an inscrutably alien world, pieced together from hybridized motifs drawn from its contemporary surroundings.

Voynich is unique for having made up its own alphabet while also seeming to be in conversation with other familiar works of the period, such that it resembles an uncanny doppelganger of many a Medieval text. A comparatively long book at 234 pages, it roughly divides into seven sections, any of which might be found on the shelves of your average 1400s European reader—a fairly small and rarified group. “Over time, Voynich enthusiasts have given each section a conventional name" for its dominant imagery: "botanical, astronomical, cosmological, zodiac, biological, pharmaceutical, and recipes.”

Scholars can only speculate about these categories. The manuscript's origins and intent have baffled cryptologists since at least the 17th century, when, notes Vox, “an alchemist described it as ‘a certain riddle of the Sphinx.’” We can presume, “judging by its illustrations,” writes Reed Johnson at The New Yorker, that Voynich is “a compendium of knowledge related to the natural world." But its “illustrations range from the fanciful (legions of heavy-headed flowers that bear no relation to any earthly variety) to the bizarre (naked and possibly pregnant women, frolicking in what look like amusement-park waterslides from the fifteenth century).”

The manuscript’s “botanical drawings are no less strange: the plants appear to be chimerical, combining incompatible parts from different species, even different kingdoms.” These drawings led scholar Nicholas Gibbs, the latest to try and decipher the text, to compare it to the Trotula, a Medieval compilation that “specializes in the diseases and complaints of women,” as he wrote in a Times Literary Supplement article earlier this month. It turns out, according to several Medieval manuscript experts who have studied the Voynich, that Gibbs’ proposed decoding may not actually solve the puzzle.

The degree of doubt should be enough to keep us in suspense, and therein lies the Voynich Manuscript’s enduring appeal—it is a black box, about which we might always ask, as Sarah Zhang does, “What could be so scandalous, so dangerous, or so important to be written in such an uncrackable cipher?” Wilfred Voynich himself asked the same question in 1912, believing the manuscript to be “a work of exceptional importance… the text must be unraveled and the history of the manuscript must be traced.” Though “not an especially glamorous physical object,” Zhang observes, it has nonetheless taken on the aura of a powerful occult charm.

But maybe it’s complete gibberish, a high-concept practical joke concocted by 15th century scribes to troll us in the future, knowing we’d fill in the space of not-knowing with the most fantastically strange speculations. This is a proposition Stephen Bax, another contender for a Voynich solution, finds hardly credible. “Why on earth would anyone waste their time creating a hoax of this kind?,” he asks. Maybe it's a relic from an insular community of magicians who left no other trace of themselves. Surely in the last 300 years every possible import has been suggested, discarded, then picked up again.

Should you care to take a crack at sleuthing out the Voynich mystery—or just to browse through it for curiosity’s sake—you can find the manuscript scanned at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which houses the vellum original. Or flip through the Internet Archive’s digital version above. Another privately-run site contains a history and description of the manuscript and annotations on the illustrations and the script, along with several possible transcriptions of its symbols proposed by scholars. Good luck!

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

New Study Reveals How the Neanderthals Made Super Glue 200,000 Years Ago: The World’s Oldest Synthetic Material

It's become increasingly clear how much we've underestimated the Neanderthals, the archaic humans who evolved in Europe and went extinct about 40,000 years ago. Though we've long used them as a byword for a lumbering, beast-like lack of development and intelligence — compared, of course, to we glorious examples of Homo sapiens — evidence has come to reveal a greater similarity between us and Homo neanderthalensis than we'd imagined. Not only did they develop stone tools, they even invented a kind of "super glue," one that, as you can see in the NOVA segment above, we have difficulty replicating even today.

"Archaeologists first found tar-covered stones and black lumps at Neanderthal sites across Europe about two decades ago," writes the New York Times' Nicholas St. Fleur. "The tar was distilled from the bark of birch trees some 200,000 years ago, and seemed to have been used for hafting, or attaching handles to stone tools and weapons. But scientists did not know how Neanderthals produced the dark, sticky substance, more than 100,000 years before Homo sapiens in Africa used tree resin and ocher adhesives." But in a new study in Scientific Reports, "a team of archaeologists has used materials available during prehistoric times to demonstrate three possible ways Neanderthals could have deliberately made tar."

The process might have looked something like that in the video above, an attempt by archaeologists Wil Roebroeks and Friedrich Palmer to make this of oldest known synthetic material just as the Neanderthals might have executed it. Their only materials: "an upturned animal skull to catch the pitch; a small stone on which the pitch would condense; some rolls of birch bark, the source of the pitch; and a layer of ash, to exclude oxygen and prevent the bark from burning."

Image by Paul Kozowyk

They technically get it to work, managing to heat the bark to just the right temperature, but the experiment doesn't produce very much of this ancient super glue — certainly not as much as Neanderthals would have used to make spears, which might turn out to have been the very first industrial process in history. Innovation, in the 21st century as well as 250,000 years ago, does tend to come from unexpected places.

You can read more about archeologists latest theories on the making of Neanderthal super glue over at Scientific Reports.

via Gizmodo

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Marie Curie Invented Mobile X-Ray Units to Help Save Wounded Soldiers in World War I

These days the phrase “mobile x-ray unit” is likely to spark heated debate about privacy, public health, and freedom of information, especially in New York City, where the police force has been less than forthcoming about its use of military grade Z Backscatter surveillance vans.

A hundred years ago, Mobile X-Ray Units were a brand new innovation, and a godsend for soldiers wounded on the front in WW1. Prior to the advent of this technology, field surgeons racing to save lives operated blindly, often causing even more injury as they groped for bullets and shrapnel whose precise locations remained a mystery.

Marie Curie was just setting up shop at Paris’ Radium Institute, a world center for the study of radioactivity, when war broke out. Many of her researchers left to fight, while Curie personally delivered France’s sole sample of radium by train to the temporarily relocated seat of government in Bordeaux.

“I am resolved to put all my strength at the service of my adopted country, since I cannot do anything for my unfortunate native country just now…,” Curie, a Pole by birth, wrote to her lover, physicist Paul Langevin on New Year’s Day, 1915.

To that end, she envisioned a fleet of vehicles that could bring X-ray equipment much closer to the battlefield, shifting their coordinates as necessary.

Rather than leaving the execution of this brilliant plan to others, Curie sprang into action.

She studied anatomy and learned how to operate the equipment so she would be able to read X-ray films like a medical professional.

She learned how to drive and fix cars.

She used her connections to solicit donations of vehicles, portable electric generators, and the necessary equipment, kicking in generously herself. (When she got the French National Bank to accept her gold Nobel Prize medals on behalf of the war effort, she spent the bulk of her prize purse on war bonds.)

She was hampered only by backwards-thinking bureaucrats whose feathers ruffled at the prospect of female technicians and drivers, no doubt forgetting that most of France’s able-bodied men were otherwise engaged.

Curie, no stranger to sexism, refused to bend to their will, delivering equipment to the front line and X-raying wounded soldiers, assisted by her 17-year-old daughter, Irène, who like her mother, took care to keep her emotions in check while working with maimed and distressed patients.

"In less than two years," writes Amanda Davis at The Institute, "the number of units had grown substantially, and the Curies had set up a training program at the Radium Institute to teach other women to operate the equipment." Eventually, they recruited about 150 women, training them to man the Little Curies, as the mobile radiography units came to be known.

via Brain Pickings

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her interest in women's wartime contributions has manifested itself in comics on "Crazy Bet" Van Lew and the Maidenform factory's manufacture of WWII carrier pigeon vests. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Who Painted the First Abstract Painting?: Wassily Kandinsky? Hilma af Klint? Or Another Contender?

Kandinsky, Untitled, 1910

Many painters today concentrate on producing abstract work — and a fair few of those have only ever produced abstract work. But look not so very far back in human history, and you'll find that to paint meant to paint representatively, to replicate on canvas the likenesses of the actual people, places, and things out there in the world. Humanity, of course didn't evolve with its representational art skills pre-installed: though some cave paintings do recognizably depict men and beasts, many strike us today as what we would call abstract, or at least abstracted. So which modern artists can lay claim to having rediscovered abstraction first?

Kandinsky, Composition V, 1911

If you've studied any art history, you might well name the early 20th-century Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (whose first abstract watercolor from 1910 appears at the top of the post). But "while Kandinsky is today hailed as the father of abstract painting," writes Artsy's Abigail Cain, "he was by no means the only player in the development of non-representational painting," though "his work Komposition V did, admittedly, jumpstart public interest in abstract painting."

First exhibited in Munich in December 1911, "this monumental work was just barely representational" and also "the first such work to be put on display," inspiring the art world not just to take abstraction seriously but to see it as the future.

Hilma af Klint, Svanen, 1915

Kandinsky, inspired by Goethe's Theory of Colors, had already given the subject of abstraction no small amount of thought. He'd first written a manifesto defining abstract art a few years earlier, titling it On the Spiritual in Art, a title that would have resonated with Hilma af Klint, a painter who might have actually gone abstract first.  "Af Klint, who was born in Stockholm, showed an early interest in nature, mathematics and art, and she began studying at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in 1882," writes the New York Times' Natalia Rachlin. She made her name as a landscape and portrait painter after graduation, but at the same time "also continued a more private pursuit: she had begun showing an interest in the occult and attending séances as early as 1879, at the age of 17."

Hilma af Klint, ‘Staggering’: The Ten Largest, Youth, 1907.

Af Klint's "curiosity about the spiritual realm soon developed into a lifelong interest in spiritism, theosophy and anthroposophy," and during one séance she heard a spirit tell her to "make paintings that would represent the immortal aspects of man. This proved to be the turning point in af Klint’s work: from the naturalistic to the abstract, from portrayals of physical reality to conveying the invisible." She went on to produce the 193 abstract Paintings for the Temple. The exhibitions of her representational work continued, but she kept the rest private, and in her will "even asked that her abstract paintings not be shown in public until at least twenty years after her death, noting that audiences were not yet capable of understanding her work."

Francis Picabia, Caoutchouc, 1909.

Both Kandinsky and Af Klint look like plausible candidates for the first abstract painter — it just depends on how you define the beginning of abstraction — but they're hardly the only ones. Cain also brings up the Czech-born, Paris-based artist František Kupka, or his colleague in the French avant-garde Francis Picabia, whose 1909 watercolor Caoutchouc (Rubber), pictured just above, came before Kandinsky had painted an abstract image or even completed any writing on the subject. Still, some objectors note that "the work still retains some semblance of form, reminiscent of a bouquet of flowers." These questions of purity, innovation, and especially originality do get complicated. As Clive James once said, "It's very hard to be totally inventive, so I'm not terribly interested in originality. Vitality is all I care about" — a quality that all these works exude still today.

via Artsy/Tate

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

1,000-Year-Old Illustrated Guide to the Medicinal Use of Plants Now Digitized & Put Online

If you don't much care for modern medicine, entire industries have arisen to provide you with more "alternative" or "natural" varieties of remedies, mostly involving the consumption of plants. Publishers have put out guides to their use by the dozens. In a way, those books have a place in a long tradition, stretching back to a time well before modern medicine existed as something to be an alternative to. Just recently, the British Library digitized the oldest such volume, a thousand-year-old illuminated manuscript known as the Cotton MS Vitellius C III. The book, writes the British Library's Alison Hudson, "is the only surviving illustrated Old English herbal, or book describing plants and their uses." (The sole condition note: "leaves damaged by fire in 1731.")

The manuscript's Old English is actually the translation of "a text which used to be attributed to a 4th-century writer known as Pseudo-Apuleius, now recognized as several different Late Antique authors whose texts were subsequently combined." It also includes "translations of Late Antique texts on the medicinal properties of badgers" and another text "on medicines derived from parts of four-legged animals."

(Somehow one doesn't imagine those latter sections playing quite as well with today's alternative-medicine market.) Each entry about a plant or animal features "its name in various languages; descriptions of ailments it can be used to treat; and instructions for finding and preparing it."

Quite a few of the species with which the guide deals would have been directly known to few or no Anglo-Saxons in those days, and some of the entries, such as the one describing dragonswort as ideally "grown in dragon’s blood," seem more fanciful than others. As with many a Medieval work, the book freely mixes fact and lore: to pick the mandrake root (pictured at the top of the post), "said to shine at night and to flee from impure persons," the guide recommends "an iron tool (to dig around it), an ivory staff (to dig the plant itself up), a dog (to help you pull it out), and quick reflexes." You can behold these and other pages of the Cotton MS Vitellius C III in zoomable high resolution at the British Library's online manuscript viewer. While the remedies themselves might never have been particularly effective, their accompanying illustrations do remain strange and amusing even a millennium later — and isn't laughter supposed to be the best medicine?

via Hyperallergic

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Trigonometry Discovered on a 3700-Year-Old Ancient Babylonian Tablet

One presumption of television shows like Ancient Aliens and books like Chariots of the Gods is that ancient people—particularly non-western people—couldn’t possibly have constructed the elaborate infrastructure and monumental architecture and statuary they did without the help of extra-terrestrials. The idea is intriguing, giving us the hugely ambitious sci-fi fantasies woven into Ridley Scott’s revived Alien franchise. It is also insulting in its level of disbelief about the capabilities of ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, South Americans, South Sea Islanders, etc.

We assume the Greeks perfected geometry, for example, and refer to the Pythagorean theorem, although this principle was probably well-known to ancient Indians. Since at least the 1940s, mathematicians have also known that the “Pythagorean triples”—integer solutions to the theorem—appeared 1000 years before Pythagoras on a Babylonian tablet called Plimpton 322. Dating back to sometime between 1822 and 1762 B.C. and discovered in southern Iraq in the early 1900s, the tablet has recently been re-examined by mathematicians Daniel Mansfield and Norman Wildberger of Australia’s University of New South Wales and found to contain even more ancient mathematical wisdom, “a trigonometric table, which is 3,000 years ahead of its time.”

In a paper published in Historia Mathematica the two conclude that Plimpton 322’s Babylonian creators detailed a “novel kind of trigonometry,” 1000 years before Pythagoras and Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who has typically received credit for trigonometry’s discovery. In the video above, Mansfield introduces the unique properties of this “scientific marvel of the ancient world," an enigma that has “puzzled mathematicians,” he writes in his article, “for more than 70 years.” Mansfield is confident that his research will fundamentally change the way we understand scientific history. He may be overly optimistic about the cultural forces that shape historical narratives, and he is not without his scholarly critics either.

Eleanor Robson, an expert on Mesopotamia at University College London has not published a formal critique, but she did take to Twitter to register her dissent, writing, “for any historical document, you need to be able to read the language & know the historical context to make sense of it. Maths is no exception.” The trigonometry hypothesis, she writes in a follow-up tweet, is “tediously wrong.” Mansfield and Wildberger may not be experts in ancient Mesopotamian language and culture, it's true, but Robson is also not a mathematician. “The strongest argument” in the Australian researchers’ favor, writes Kenneth Chang at The New York Times, is that “the table works for trigonomic calculations.” As Mansfield says, “you don’t make a trigonomic table by accident.”

Plimpton 322 uses ratios rather than angles and circles. “But when you arrange it such a way so that you can use any known ratio of a triangle to find the other side of a triangle,” says Mansfield, “then it becomes trigonometry. That’s what we can use this fragment for.” As for what the ancient Babylonians used it for, we can only speculate. Robson and others have proposed that the tablet was a teaching guide. Mansfield believes “Plimpton 322 was a powerful tool that could have been used for surveying fields or making architectural calculations to build palaces, temples or step pyramids.”

Whatever its ancient use, Mansfield thinks the tablet “has great relevance for our modern world… practical applications in surveying, computer graphics and education.” Given the possibilities, Plimpton 322 might serve as “a rare example of the ancient world teaching us something new,” should we choose to learn it. That knowledge probably did not originate in outer space.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When Albert Einstein Championed the Creation of a One World Government (1945)

Image by Ferdinand Schmutzer, via Wikimedia Commons

The concept of one-world government has long been a staple of violent apocalyptic prophecy and conspiracy theories involving various popes, the UN, FEMA, the Illuminati, and lizard people. In the real world, one-world government has been a goal of the global Comintern and many of the corporate oligarchs who triumphed over the Soviets in the Cold War. For good reason, perhaps—with the exception of sci-fi utopias like Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek—we generally tend to think of global government as a threatening idea. But that has not always been the case, or least it wasn’t for Albert Einstein who proposed global governance after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Einstein’s role in the development of those weapons may have been minimal, according to the physicist himself (the truth is a little more complicated). But he later expressed regret, or at least a total rethinking of the issue, in his many interviews, letters, and speeches. In 1952, for example, Einstein wrote a short essay called “On My Participation in the Atom Bomb Project” in which he recommended that all nations “abolish war by common action” and referred to the pacifist example of Gandhi, “the greatest political genius of our time.”

Five years earlier, we find Einstein in a less than hopeful mood. In a 1947 open letter to the General Assembly of the United Nations, he laments that “since the victory over the Axis powers… no appreciable progress has been made either toward the prevention of war or toward agreement in specific fields such as control of atomic energy and economic cooperation.” The solution as he saw it required a “modification of the traditional concept of national sovereignty.” It’s a clause that might have launched a thousand militia manifestoes. Einstein elaborates:

For as long as atomic energy and armaments are considered a vital part of national security no nation will give more than lip service to international treaties. Security is indivisible. It can be reached only when necessary guarantees of law and enforcement obtain everywhere, so that military security is no longer the problem of any single state. There is no compromise possible between preparation for war, on the one hand, and preparation of a world society based on law and order on the other.

So far this sounds not simply like a one-world government but like a one-world police state. But Einstein’s proposal gets a much more comprehensive treatment in an earlier Atlantic Monthly editorial published in 1945. Here, he admits that many of his ideas are “abstractions” and lays out a scheme to ostensibly protect against global totalitarianism.

Membership in a supranational security system should not, in my opinion, be based on any arbitrary democratic standards. The one requirement from all should be that the representatives to supranational organization—assembly and council—must be elected by the people in each member country through a secret ballot. These representatives must represent the people rather than any government—which would enhance the pacific nature of the organization.

The greatest obstacle to a global government was not, Einstein thought, U.S. mistrust, but Russian unwillingness. After making every effort to induce the Soviets to join, he writes in his UN letter, other nations should band together to form a “partial world Government… comprising at least two-thirds of the major industrial and economic areas of the world.” This body “should make it clear from the beginning that its doors remain wide open to any non-member.”

Einstein corresponded with many people on the issue of one-world government, recommending in one letter that a “permanent world court” be established to “constrain the executive branch of world government from overstepping its mandate which, in the beginning, should be limited to the prevention of war and war-provoking developments.” He does not foresee the problem of an executive who seizes power through nefarious means and ignores institutional checks on power and privilege. As for the not-insignificant matter of the economy, he writes that “the freedom of each country to develop economic, political and cultural institutions of its own choice must be guaranteed at the outset.”

Ideological conflicts over economics seemed to him “quite irrational,” as he wrote in his Atlantic editorial. “Whether the economic life of America should be dominated by relatively few individuals, as it is, or these individuals should be controlled by the state, may be important, but it is not important enough to justify all the feelings that are stirred up over it.” Like any honest intellectual, Einstein reserved the right to change his mind. By 1949 he had come to see socialism as a necessary antidote to the “grave evils of capitalism”—the gravest of which, he wrote, is “an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society”—even one, presumably, with global legislative reach.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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