Stop the Secrecy

Motherboard: Big data vs an enigmatic medieval discovery

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 15:16 -- Eva Prkachin

See how the Internet is helping to solve this decades-long medieval text mystery

Article by Felipe Maia for Motherboard

The Voynich Manuscript might have been dropped to Earth by aliens; it might be a medieval cipher whose mystery outlived anyone who had the key; it also might be a prank and moneymaking scheme by some haggard rare bookseller. But whatever the book actually is, Brazilian scientists are pretty certain that the manuscript's text—which is written in a language and alphabet only found in the Voynich itself—isn't just gibberish. There's meaning in there, and complex network modeling or other big data tools might crack the enigma that has thus far proven unbreakable.

Granted, the work led by Dr. Diego Amancio hasn't yet told us anything new about the manuscript, which is named for the antiquarian who came across the medieval-looking book in 1912, Wilfred Voynich. A professor at University of São Paulo's Institute of Mathematical and Computer Sciences, Amancio found evidence that indicates, at least, that the manuscript makes some sort of sense. Beyond just revealing the manuscript's secrets, Amancio's work may help to boost the intelligence of bots past the Turing Test, like the impressive or maybe unimpressive software Eugene Gootsman, which famously sort of passed the test early this year.

“Our research has shown that the Voynich Manuscript presents a great deal of statistical patterns that are similar to those of natural languages,” says Amancio. Besides endorsing the existence of some meaning in the text, his conclusions fly in the face of many theories that treat this piece of work as an elaborate prank made by some old-school braggadocio.

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