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Scientists put a date on world’s “strangest” book

Feb. 10, 2011
Courtesy of the University of Arizona
and World Science staff

As en­thu­si­asts across the world pore over the Voyn­ich manu­script—penned by an un­known au­thor in an ut­terly baf­fling lan­guage—re­search­ers say they’ve solved one of its key mys­ter­ies.

When was it made?

Re­search­ers led by Uni­vers­ity of Ar­i­zo­na phys­i­cist Greg Hod­gins have de­ter­mined that the parch­ment pages date to the early 1400s, mak­ing the book a cen­tu­ry old­er than schol­ars had pre­vi­ously thought.

Pages from the Voynich Manu­script. (Cou­rt­esy Bein­ecke Rare Book and Manu­script Lib­rary, Yale U.)


Called the world’s most mys­te­ri­ous man­u­script, the tome is packed with draw­ings and writ­ings no­body has been able to de­ci­pher. It makes the “DaVinci Code” look down­right bland: rows of text scrawled on old parch­ment, flow­ing around in­tri­cate draw­ings of plants, as­tro­nom­i­cal charts and hu­man fig­ures bath­ing in – per­haps – a foun­tain of youth. 

Al­ien char­ac­ters, some re­sem­bling Lat­in let­ters, oth­ers un­like an­y­thing used in any known lan­guage, are ar­ranged in­to what seem like words and sen­tences, but their mean­ing stub­bornly de­fies the most sea­soned ex­perts.

Hod­gins, whose team used a tech­nique called ra­di­o­car­bon dat­ing to es­ti­mate the age, is fas­ci­nat­ed. “Is it a code, a ci­pher of some kind? Peo­ple are do­ing sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis of let­ter use and word use – the tools that have been used for code break­ing. But they still haven’t fig­ured it out.”

Now owned by Yale Uni­vers­ity’s Bei­necke Rare Book and Man­u­script Li­brary, the man­u­script was disco­vered in the Vil­la Mon­drag­one near Rome in 1912 by an­ti­que book deal­er Wil­frid Voyn­ich while sift­ing through a chest of books be­ing sold by the Jes­u­it re­li­gious or­der. 

Voyn­ich ded­i­cat­ed his re­main­ing 18 years of life to try­ing to deciper the book, in vain.

In 2009, in the base­ment un­derneath the Uni­vers­ity of Ar­i­zo­na Phys­ics and At­mos­pher­ic Sci­ences build­ing, Hod­gins and a crew of sci­en­tists, en­gi­neers and tech­ni­cians stared at a com­put­er screen dis­play­ing graphs and lines. The hum­ming sound of ma­chin­ery filled the room. This locati­on is the heart of a mas­sive in­stru­ment capa­ble of sniff­ing out trac­es of the el­e­ment car­bon-14 in ob­jects, giv­ing sci­en­tists clues about the age of the sam­ples.

Carbon-14 is a rare, ra­di­o­ac­t­ive form of car­bon. In na­ture, only one in a tril­li­on car­bon atoms are Carbon-14, the rest be­ing the more com­mon car­bon-12. How­ev­er, an­i­mals ac­cu­mu­late an apprecia­ble amount of car­bon-14 in their tis­sues through­out life, ob­tain­ing it from plants that in turn get it from the air. When a plant or an­i­mal dies, the lev­el of car­bon-14 in it drops at a predicta­ble rate, and thus can be used to cal­cu­late the amount of time that has passed since death.

What’s true of plants and an­i­mals is al­so true of prod­ucts made from them. Be­cause the Voyn­ich Man­u­script’s pages are made from an­i­mal skin, they can be ra­di­o­car­bon-dated. To car­ry out the pro­cess, Hod­gins and col­leagues ex­tracted ti­ny sam­ples of car­bon from the book and placed them in­to an “ion source,” part of an in­stru­ment called a mass spec­trom­e­ter. “This causes the atoms in the sam­ple to be ion­ized… mean­ing they now have an elec­tric charge and can be pro­pelled by elec­tric and mag­net­ic fields,” he said.

Ejected from the ion source, the car­bon ions are formed in­to a beam that rac­es through the in­stru­ment at a fracti­on of the speed of light. Fo­cus­ing the beam with mag­net­ic lens­es and fil­ters, the mass spec­trom­e­ter then splits it up in­to sev­er­al beams, each con­tain­ing only one var­i­ant, or iso­tope, of car­bon. “Carbon-14 is heav­i­er than the oth­er car­bon iso­topes,” Hod­gins said. “This way, we can sin­gle out this iso­tope and de­ter­mine how much of it is pre­s­ent in the sam­ple. From that, we cal­cu­late its age.”

To get the sam­ple from the man­u­script, Hod­gins trav­eled to Yale. “I sat down with the Voyn­ich man­u­script on a desk in front of me, and del­i­cately dis­sect­ed a piece of parch­ment from the edge of a page with a scalpel,” Hod­gins said. Next, the sam­ple was burnt, leav­ing be­hind only its car­bon con­tent.

“In ra­di­o­car­bon dat­ing, there is this whole sys­tem of many peo­ple work­ing at it,” he said. “It takes many skills to pro­duce a date. From start to fin­ish, there is ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­pert­ise; there is bio­chem­i­cal and chem­i­cal ex­pert­ise; we need phys­i­cists, en­gi­neers and statis­ti­cians.” The team was able to push back the pre­sumed age of the Voyn­ich man­u­script by 100 years, a disco­very that they said killed some of the pre­vi­ously held hy­pothe­ses about its ori­gins.

Else­where, ex­perts an­a­lyzed the inks and paints that makes up the man­u­script’s strange writ­ings and im­ages. “It would be great if we could di­rectly ra­di­o­car­bon date the inks, but it is ac­tu­ally really dif­fi­cult to do, “ Hod­gins said.

The mean­ing of the man­u­script re­mains opaque. Is it a foun­tain of se­cret wis­dom? A monk’s old prac­ti­cal joke? “The text shows strange char­ac­ter­is­tics like re­pet­i­tive word use or the ex­change of one let­ter in a se­quence,” Hod­gins said. “Odd­i­ties like that make it really hard to un­der­stand the mean­ing.”

“There are types of ci­phers that em­bed mean­ing with­in gib­ber­ish. So it is pos­si­ble that most of it does mean noth­ing. There is an old ci­pher meth­od where you have a sheet of pa­per with stra­te­gic­ally placed holes in it. And when those holes are laid on top of the writ­ing, you read the let­ters in those holes.”

“Who knows what’s be­ing writ­ten about in this man­u­script, but it ap­pears to be deal­ing with a range of top­ics that might re­late to al­che­my,” a med­ieval pract­ice in­corpo­rat­ing ele­ments of sci­ence and myst­i­cism. “Se­cre­cy is some­times as­so­ci­at­ed with al­che­my,and so it would be con­sist­ent with that traditi­on if the knowl­edge con­tained in the book was en­cod­ed. What we have are the draw­ings. Just look at those draw­ings: Are they bo­tan­i­cal? Are they ma­rine or­gan­isms? Are they astrolog­i­cal? No­body knows.”


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As enthusiasts across the world pore over the Voynich manuscript—penned by an unknown author in an utterly baffling language—researchers say they’ve solved one of its key mysteries. When was it made? Researchers led by University of Arizona physicist Greg Hodgins have determined that parchment pages date to the early 1400s, making the book a century older than scholars had previously thought. Called the world’s most mysterious manuscript, the Voynich document is packed with drawings and writings nobody has been able to decipher to this day. The tome makes the “DaVinci Code” look downright lackluster: rows of text scrawled on old parchment, flowing around intricately drawn illustrations depicting plants, astronomical charts and human figures bathing in – perhaps – a fountain of youth. Alien characters, some resembling Latin letters, others unlike anything used in any known language, are arranged into what seem like words and sentences, but their meaning stubbornly defies the most seasoned experts. Hodgins, whose team used a technique called radiocarbon dating to estimate the age, is fascinated. “Is it a code, a cipher of some kind? People are doing statistical analysis of letter use and word use – the tools that have been used for code breaking. But they still haven’t figured it out.” Now owned by Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the manuscript was discovered in the Villa Mondragone near Rome in 1912 by antique book dealer Wilfrid Voynich while sifting through a chest of books being sold by the Jesuit religious order. Voynich dedicated his remaining 18 years of life to trying to deciper the book, in vain. In 2009, in the basement underneath the University of Arizona Physics and Atmospheric Sciences building, Hodgins and a crew of scientists, engineers and technicians stared at a computer screen displaying graphs and lines. The humming sound of machinery filled the room. This location is the heart of a massive instrument capable of sniffing out traces of the element carbon-14 in objects, giving scientists clues about the age of the samples. Carbon-14 is a rare, radioactive form of carbon. In nature, only one in a trillion carbon atoms are Carbon-14, the rest being the more common carbon-12. However, animals accumulate an appreciable amount of carbon-14 in their tissues throughout life, obtaining it from plants that in turn get it from the air. When a plant or animal dies, the level of carbon-14 in it remains drops at a predictable rate, and thus can be used to calculate the amount of time that has passed since death. What’s true of plants and animals is also true of products made from them. Because the Voynich Manuscript’s pages are made from animal skin, they can be radiocarbon-dated. To carry out the process, Hodgins and colleagues extracted tiny samples of carbon from book and placed them into an “ion source,” part of instrument called a mass spectrometer. “This causes the atoms in the sample to be ionized… meaning they now have an electric charge and can be propelled by electric and magnetic fields,” he said. Ejected from the ion source, the carbon ions are formed into a beam that races through the instrument at a fraction of the speed of light. Focusing the beam with magnetic lenses and filters, the mass spectrometer then splits it up into several beams, each containing only one variant, or isotope, of carbon. “Carbon-14 is heavier than the other carbon isotopes,” Hodgins said. “This way, we can single out this isotope and determine how much of it is present in the sample. From that, we calculate its age.” To get the sample from the manuscript, Hodgins traveled to Yale. “I sat down with the Voynich manuscript on a desk in front of me, and delicately dissected a piece of parchment from the edge of a page with a scalpel,” Hodgins said. Next, the sample was burnt, leaving behind only its carbon content. “In radiocarbon dating, there is this whole system of many people working at it,” he said. “It takes many skills to produce a date. From start to finish, there is archaeological expertise; there is biochemical and chemical expertise; we need physicists, engineers and statisticians.” The team was able to push back the presumed age of the Voynich manuscript by 100 years, a discovery that they said killed some of the previously held hypotheses about its origins. Elsewhere, experts analyzed the inks and paints that makes up the manuscript’s strange writings and images. “It would be great if we could directly radiocarbon date the inks, but it is actually really difficult to do, “ Hodgins said. The meaning of the manuscript remains opaque. “The text shows strange characteristics like repetitive word use or the exchange of one letter in a sequence,” Hodgins said. “Oddities like that make it really hard to understand the meaning.” “There are types of ciphers that embed meaning within gibberish. So it is possible that most of it does mean nothing. There is an old cipher method where you have a sheet of paper with strategically placed holes in it. And when those holes are laid on top of the writing, you read the letters in those holes.” “Who knows what’s being written about in this manuscript, but it appears to be dealing with a range of topics that might relate to alchemy. Secrecy is sometimes associated with alchemy, and so it would be consistent with that tradition if the knowledge contained in the book was encoded. What we have are the drawings. Just look at those drawings: Are they botanical? Are they marine organisms? Are they astrological? Nobody knows.”