Sunday, 6 January 2008

Some Voynich outsiders...

As a handy (but inevitably bad) generalization, there are two kinds of Voynich researchers out there: (a) social ones (who do it in a crowd) and (b) anti-social ones (who do it alone). Broadly speaking, I'm now a (b) having first done a six-year stretch as an (a): but some people (like my old friend GC, who's like my Voynichological twin brother, though without the goatee... hmmm...) manage to stay (b) with occasional flashes of (a), despite all the provocation they (inevitably?) receive online.

But when you add things like blogs to the mix, this cosy categorization starts to fall apart. Because I blog about what I'm thinking about, does that make me a kind of passive-aggressive (a), or perhaps a falsely socialized (b)? Are blogs actually social, or merely a kind of unconscious, self-aggrandizing auto-journalism? Answers on an e-postcard (to someone else), please.

Regardless, plenty of people put out their Voynich-related outsider viewpoints in varied ways: here are some you may have missed (but which my seine net picked up). Be grateful I only kept the good stuff! :-)

(1) Richard Santa Coloma has posted up a set of long-ish posts by GC here: intriguingly, GC (who for years has winced at the thought of anything apart from a 16th century origin, largely because of Leonell Strong's decryption / Askham attribution) is now mellowing towards the 15th century (though quite how the two centuries blend together is still a little wobbly).

Incidentally, the possibility (as proposed by Richard Santa Coloma) of Cornelius Drebbel-era (i.e. circa 1600) authorship for the Voynich remains interesting, though hard to square with the manuscript's 15th century art history. But perhaps the truth will turn out to be far more magnificent. Telescope histories (such as this excellent one from the Galileo Project) will tell you that the glass in Venice produced around 1450 was being ground by Florentines (and others) into both convex and concave lenses for spectacles / bericles, and so anyone with access to both could have made telescopes and microscopes. Yet the first properly documented examples of each instrument appear 140+ years later. What is curious is that, according to the Galileo Project:

  • "In the literature of white magic, so popular in the sixteenth century, there are several tantalizing references to devices that would allow one to see one's enemies or count coins from a great distance. But these allusions were cast in obscure language and were accompanied by fantastic claims; the telescope, when it came, was a very humble and simple device." ( para 4)

Could it be that various individuals invented and reinvented the microscope and telescope multiple times in that century-and-a-half gap? If you view the Voynich Manuscript's quires 19 and 17 (in that order), you will see what looks for all the world like a lab notebook detailing the development of a sequence of microscopes (and possibly telescopes), seguing into speculative optical instruments. If only Richard Santa Coloma "dropped the Drebbel", he might find a far more amazing story waiting to be uncovered...

(2) Sean B. Palmer has posted some interesting pages here (on "Michitonese") and here (on the zodiac month names), though in both cases chasing behind work I had done six or so months previously. A nice resource he uses which I wasn't aware of: the Xerox XRCE Language Guesser. You feed it 5 sentences of text, and it compares them with 47 languages (though doubtless a longer list in the commercial version) to determine the closest match. Kewl! (i.e. 'fascinating technology but not actually very useful').

(3) One of the quintessential twentieth century outsiders was Terence McKenna: though I can't walk in his footsteps (largely because I'm allergic to mushrooms), it is hard not to feel some kind of admiration for his endless tilting against those powerful windmills who continue to blow us around. There's an audio archive of his work here, with a long (but often terribly wrong, I'm sorry to say) discussion of the Voynich Manuscript from 1983 here...

In it, he namechecks Mary D'Imperio's "Elegant Enigma" ("this is what your tax dollars are being used for"), and notes that the VMs' internal structuring probably indicates meaningful content However, McKenna understands that it's not a Trithemius-derived code or cipher and suggests it should be compared by computer with the work of John Dee (which Leonell Strong also flagged), even though he's very much into Dee-Kelley hoax hypotheses. Modern cryptographers may well be blind to the particular "weird quirky way" in which it was encoded/enciphered, he says: alternatively, "a chemical attack should be mounted" on the manuscript's plants. Oh, and it's "aaaaahbviously sixteenth century". Around 20 minutes in, lots of Yatesian stuff gets namechecked [if you like that kind of thing]. At the time, McKenna was "advising a group of people in Santa Cruz" (almost certainly via Ralph Abraham, I guess) in their research into the VMs, "one of the great oddities of human thought".

The problem with McKenna's Voynichological heritage is his subsequent endorsement of Leo Levitov's problematic 1987 Cathar decryption (about 24mins in, read from McKenna's "Archaic Revival"), which now looks rather foolish. Oh well! By the way, the mp3 ends with about 10 minutes of frog croaking, which may or may not be meaningful (you choose). :-)

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