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The World's Most Mysterious Manuscript

When book collector Wilfrid M. Voynich acquired several items from a Jesuit college near Rome in 1912, he discovered a manuscript like no other. Now know as the "Voynich manuscript," it had weird writing in some unrecognizable language and biological, botanical and astronomical images that may give...

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When book collector Wilfrid M. Voynich acquired several items from a Jesuit college near Rome in 1912, he discovered a manuscript like no other. Now know as the " Voynich manuscript," it had weird writing in some unrecognizable language and biological, botanical and astronomical images that may give some clue as to what is in the book but more often lead to more confusion.



Many have attempted to decipher the book, including some of the world's best code breakers, but none have been successful. (The book now belongs to Yale University, though anyone who is interested in trying to read it can view the entire manuscript online.)



A Prague alchemist, the earliest known owner, had the manuscript in the early 17th century. On his death, it passed to a friend who sent the book to a Jesuit scholar in Rome. It stayed with the Jesuits for some 200 years before being sold to Voynich.



But who wrote the manuscript and when are unknown. Possible suspects over the years have included a Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon, in the late 13th century; the personal physician of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, in the early 1600s; even Voynich himself, with the manuscript suspected of being a fake.



Science has given some clues as to when the book was created. In 2009, a team led by Greg Hodgins of the University of Arizona was allowed to take four tiny samples of the paper, just 1 millimeter by 6 millimeters each, for radio-carbon dating. They found that the manuscript was created in the early 15th century, which has helped narrow down the list of possible creators.



Studies of the ink have shown that they are consistent with inks used in the Renaissance period. "It would be great if we could directly radiocarbon date the inks, but it is actually really difficult to do. First, they are on a surface only in trace amounts" Hodgins said. "The carbon content is usually extremely low. Moreover, sampling ink free of carbon from the parchment on which it sits is currently beyond our abilities. Finally, some inks are not carbon based, but are derived from ground minerals. They're inorganic, so they don't contain any carbon."



And so, the search continues.
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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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