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VMs: RuggWatch

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Tuesday, 20 July 2004

Central Europe: Is 16th-Century Voynich Manuscript A Hoax? 

By Askold Krushelnycky

The Voynich manuscript has consistently foiled powerful computers and some of 
the world's best cryptographers, who have never managed to decipher the 
16th-century encoded book. But now, as RFE/RL reports, one scientist says the 
manuscript could be a sophisticated hoax.

Prague, 20 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In 1586, the Holy Roman emperor, Rudolf II, 
purchased a thick, cryptic manuscript that he believed held the secret to 
wealth and long life. 

The book -- 230 pages filled with strange illustrations of plants, planets, 
and women, accompanied by text written in an undecipherable encoded language -- 
has come to be known as the Voynich manuscript. But neither Rudolf's scholars 
-- nor scores of subsequent researchers and code breakers -- was ever able to 
decipher the book. 

Now, a British scientist has said he believes that one of the world's oldest 
riddles may actually be a hoax. Gordon Rugg is a lecturer at the school of 
computing and mathematics at Britain's Keele University. "It's possible that 
there is a code buried deep in there. But I think my main advance has been to show 
that there is a possible solution to the manuscript, where before the only 
possibility that looked real was some massively complex code which was centuries 
ahead of its time -- and that's not a very plausible solution," he said. 

A far more plausible solution, according to Rugg, is that the manuscript held 
no secrets of prosperity or eternal youth -- but that it did earn its author 
a handsome profit equivalent to $50,000. 

The author, Rugg says, was a notorious English alchemist and fraudster named 
Edward Kelley. Among his many dubious achievements, Kelley created what 
remains one of the most elaborate artificial languages ever made -- a language he 
described as the tongue of the angels. 

The British hoaxer was visiting royal courts in Central Europe at the time 
the Voynich manuscript was sold. Among the courts Kelley visited was Rudolf's, 
in what is now the Czech Republic. Rugg cannot prove it was Kelley who sold the 
manuscript to Rudolf. But he believes the fraudster's presence in the region 
was no coincidence. 

"He was a famous fraudster -- he claimed to be able to transmute base metal 
into gold. He did it so effectively that he actually became a baron at one 
point, and was then discovered and put in jail. So he's a known criminal, a known 
confidence trickster, who's created a rich, elaborate language and who just 
happens to be at Rudolf's court at the point when the Voynich manuscript 
appears," Rugg said. 

After Rudolf's scholars failed to crack the code, the manuscript disappeared 
from view for 250 years. It was rediscovered in a Rome library in 1912 by a 
rare-book collector, Wilfrid Voynich, and now is kept at Yale University. It has 
baffled computers, linguists, and military code breakers ever since. 

Rugg, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology, said he first became drawn to the 
riddle of the Voynich manuscript because of his interest in developing innovative 
problem-solving methodologies. "I was interested in it for several reasons. 
One is it's a real solid mystery, it exists, there's no doubt about its 
existence, unlike ghosts or UFOs," he said. "You can touch it, you can see it. It's a 
mystery because there didn't seem to be any possible explanation for it. It 
appeared to be too complex to be a hoax, it appeared to be not a natural 
language because it contained too many features that no human language contains." 

Rugg said other codes created at the same time as the Voynich manuscript were 
easily cracked by cryptographers who had spent World War II deciphering 
German and Japanese secret codes. But the Voynich text remained a mystery. The 
reason, Rugg eventually deduced, was because the code used in the text was 
composed of random letters arranged in a meaningless pattern. 

Conducting research, Rugg discovered systems -- such as the so-called Cardan 
Grille, invented in 1550 by an Italian mathematician -- that could be used to 
create a text that looked like a code but bore no meaning. "In essence, I 
taught myself to [create] hoax medieval texts that looked as though they were 
cipher texts," he said. "And when I started doing that, I found it was 
surprisingly easy to produce very complex-looking language using 16th-century techniques 
very quickly." 

Rugg said his method has not proved the Voynich manuscript is a hoax but has 
demonstrated that it could be. He hopes to apply his method of looking for new 
approaches to unsolved problems to a range of engineering and medical 
mysteries, including finding ways to deal with Alzheimer's disease. 

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