New Theories About a Mysterious Manuscript

As I wrote here, I believe the Voynich Manuscript is an authentic, encrypted esoteric text.

Much of the art–including flora and fauna–is fanciful, but some botanists believe some of the plants may resemble examples of New World vegetation depicted in other old manuscripts.

Dr. Arthur Tucker from Delaware University … discovered similarities between specific plants in the manuscript and illustrations of plants he had spotted in his collection of 16th century Mexican records.

For example, Dr. Tucker and fellow researcher Rexford Talbert said one plant in the book bears a resemblance to the picture of a soap plant (xiuhamolli) seen in a Mexican codex from 1552.

While another example includes the illustration of the Ipomoea murucoides, taken from the Mexican Codex Cruz-Badianus, which has an identical style to the Ipomoea arborescens in the manuscript.

In total, the researchers linked 37 of the 303 plants in the manuscript to illustrations in ancient Mexican books covering botany across Texas, California and Nicaragua.

If the text is written in the language of Nahuatl, the botanists claim they can find the name of the plants in the manuscript and may be able to use these to form a basic code from which to crack the rest of the text.

For example, a Voynich illustration of a cactus pad or fruit is shown near the name ‘nashtli’, which Tucker and Talbert claim is a variant of the word ‘nochtil’ – the Nahuatl name for the fruit of the prickly pear.

Nahuatl originated in Central Mexico during the 7th century. It was the spoken predominantly by the Aztecs.

Following the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century, the alphabet was replaced with Latin.

I have my doubts that this will yield a solution, but it’s a fascinating line of inquiry.

The Astrolabe [Beautiful Machines]

When I was asked to come up with a header for this blog, I submitted two ideas to Patheos: a robotic riff on Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, and an image of an astrolabe. Unable to choose between the two, I suggested that the art department just combine them, and the striking image above was born.

I first encountered the astrolabe in college while I was studying Chaucer, who wrote a famous Treatise on the Astrolabe for his 10-year-old son, Lewis. Although it has few of the literary qualities we look for in a work by Chaucer, it’s still a charming example of 14th century home-schooling pedagogy. He even apologizes for his “rude editing” and “overabundance of words” by explaining that “it’s better two write a good sentence twice for a child, since he’ll forget it [if he only reads it] once.”

Rather than leaving it to Chaucer to explain how an astrolabe works, the following presentation by Autodesk’s Tom Wujec provides a superb (and quite perceptive) explanation of their function and meaning:

The astrolabe is everything technology should aspire to be. It is beautiful. It is functional. It was, for its time, the very pinnacle of technological achievement, yet even today its simple effectiveness is striking. A thousand year old astrolabe could do anything today it could when it was first made. You won’t be able to say the same about your iPhone in a thousand years.

Finally, it is God-centered. A person with an astrolabe was not merely finding the answer to a question as a discrete piece of data. He was not merely learning a bit of information, such as What time is it? or What is my current latitude? He was surveying the universe around him. It was as though he was drawing down the stars so they might speak to him. He knew his physical location in the cosmos because the astrolabe told him so. With himself as the reference point, the universe expanded outward around him, and the astrolabe made sense of it all: the motion of stars, the rising and setting of the sun, the rotation of the earth: all of it was depicted on a complex set of rotating discs.

This was only possible because God had given man an ordered universe, and the ability to understand it. God is the grand artificer of creation, the conductor of the musica universalis. A medieval man would not just see a mechanical depiction of the motion of the observable universe in an astrolabe, but also know that his place in that universe was assured because he was created in the image and likeness of a loving God. Each time he used it, he was not merely doing the equivalent of checking his watch or his phone for the time. He was reestablishing his place and role in creation.

A generous selection of photographs of astrolabes can be found here. Take a moment to see how our allegedly benighted medieval forbears combined design, functionality, usefulness, craftsmanship, and beauty to create one of the milestones in technological development. The Christian and Muslim scholars who created these devices did so not just because they found them practical or useful. They created them because they fulfilled the highest calling of science and technology: to help us better understand the work of God.

This post was originally published in April 2012.

The Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis in 3D

Here’s a terrific video (Italian with subtitles) of the The Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis, using slick animation to peel away the layers and provide a good view of the site.

The area had been closed for a time for additional excavation and restoration, but is now open to public with even more sites to see. The burials extend deep into the Vatican hill and is the site of “small mausoleums, finely sculpted sarcophagi, statues, mouldings, mosaics, frescoes and bas-reliefs with epigraphs describing the lives of those who repose at the foot of the ancient hill.” Read more here. 

Take It Easy [App o the Mornin’]

Take it Easy (iOS: $2) is a rather nondescript title for what was, when it was released as a board game 20 years ago, a remarkably innovative twist on bingo. The game is played on a hexagonal board comprised of 19 hexagonal spaces. Players blind-draw hexagonal chips, each marked with lines going in three directions (1 vertical and two diagonal). There are nine different colors of line ranging in point value from 1 (gray) up to 9 (yellow).

These tiles are laid on the board so that, wherever possible, the lines of a single color connect without interruption from edge to edge. If you manage to make an unbroken line, you get the point values for all the tiles in that line. So, a 5-tile gray line is worth 5 points, while a 5-tile yellow line is worth 45.

As the board fills, it gets harder to place tiles without interrupting a line of color, leading to a remarkably subtle but complex set of strategies for maximizing point values. The highest possible score is 307.

The mobile version implements the design with colorful visuals and a nice drag-and-drop interface. They’ve also expanded the idea with new game modes: Progressive and Puzzle. Progressive is a timed mode with bonus stages. You’re trying to fill the board before the clock runs out, earning a certain a minimum score which increases each round. Leftover time rolls over to the next level. The goal is to go as long as high as you can before the time runs out or you fail to score enough.

Puzzle mode isn’t hugely challenging, but it’s a fun diversion. You need to make certain patterns, scores, designs, or kinds of placement to clear a level, sometimes withe restrictions like locked spaces.

The app includes internet and local play for up to four people, with various modes and round options. As with the original game, the app can be played solo or multiplayer for up to four people. It was never a particularly interactive games: people draw until their boards are filled, total up the score, and highest score wins. It is, however, as great a puzzler as it ever was, and the mobile version is a fine way to rediscover it.

Content: No issues. All ages.