Researchers Claim to Crack the Voynich Manuscript Using AI, But Experts Are Skeptical

Computing scientists at the University of Alberta recently made a bold claim: They say they’ve identified the source language of the baffling Voynich Manuscript, and they did so using artificial intelligence.

Their study, published in Transactions of the Association of Computational Linguistics [PDF], basically states that an AI algorithm trained to recognize hundreds of languages determined the Voynich Manuscript to be encoded Hebrew. On the surface, this looks like a huge breakthrough: Since it was rediscovered a century ago, the Voynich Manuscript’s indecipherable text has stumped everyone from World War II codebreakers to computer programmers. But experts are hesitant to give credence to the news. “I have very little faith in it,” cryptographer Elonka Dunin tells Mental Floss. “Hebrew, and dozens of other languages have been identified before. Everyone sees what they want to see.”

Anyone who’s familiar with the Voynich Manuscript should understand the skepticism. The book, which contains 246 pages of illustrations and apparent words written in an unknown script, is obscured by mystery. It’s named for Wilfrid Voynich, the Polish book dealer who purchased it in 1912, but experts believe it was written 600 years ago. Nothing is known about the person who authored it or the book’s purpose.

Many cryptologists suspect the text is a cipher, or a coded pattern of letters that must be unscrambled to make sense. But no code has been identified even after decades of the world’s best cryptographers testing countless combinations. With their study, the researchers at the University of Alberta claim to have done something different. Instead of relying on human linguists and codebreakers, they developed an AI program capable of identifying the source languages of text. They fed the technology 380 versions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, each one translated into a different language and enciphered. After learning to recognize codes in various languages, the AI was given some pages of the Voynich Manuscript. Based on what it had seen already, it named Hebrew as the book’s original language—a surprise to the researchers, who were expecting Arabic.

The researchers then devised an algorithm that rearranged the letters into real words. They were able to make actual Hebrew out of 80 percent of the encoded words in the manuscript. Next, they needed to find an ancient Hebrew scholar to look at the words and determine if they fit together coherently.

But the researchers claim they were unable to get in touch with any scholars, and instead used Google Translate to make sense of the first sentence of the manuscript. In English, the decoded words they came up with read, “She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people." Study co-author Greg Kondrak said in a release, “It’s a kind of strange sentence to start a manuscript but it definitely makes sense.”

Dunin is less optimistic. According to her, naming a possible cipher and source language without actually translating more of the text is no cause for celebration. “They identify a method without decrypting a paragraph,” she says. Even their method is questionable. Dunin points out the AI program was trained using ciphers that the researchers themselves wrote, not ciphers from real life. “They scrambled the texts using their own system, then they used their own software to de-scramble those. Then they used it on the manuscript and said, ‘Oh look, it’s Hebrew!’ So it’s a big, big leap.”

The University of Alberta researchers aren’t the first to claim they’ve identified the language of the Voynich Manuscript, and they won’t be the last. But unless they’re able the decode the full text into a meaningful language, the manuscript remains as mysterious today as it did 100 years ago. And if you agree with cryptographers like Dunin who think the book might be a constructed language, a detailed hoax, or even a product of mental illness, it’s a mystery without a satisfying explanation.

Why Is Pee Yellow?

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

WHY? is our attempt to answer all the questions every little kid asks. Do you have a question? Send it to why@mentalfloss.com.

Your body is kind of like a house. You bring things into your body by eating, drinking, and breathing. But just like the things we bring home to real houses, we don’t need every part of what we take in. So there are leftovers, or garbage. And if you let garbage sit around in your house or your body for too long, it gets gross and can make you sick. Your body takes out the garbage by peeing and pooping. These two things are part of your body’s excretory system (ECKS-krih-tore-eee SISS-tem), which is just a fancy way of saying “trash removal.” If your body is healthy, when you look in the toilet you should see brown poop and yellow pee.

Clear, light yellow pee is a sign that your excretory system and the rest of your body are working right. If your pee, or urine (YER-inn), is not see-through, that might mean you are sick. Dark yellow urine usually means that you aren’t drinking enough water. On the other hand, really pale or colorless pee can mean you might be drinking too much water! 

Your blood is filtered through two small organs called kidneys (KID-knees). Remember the garbage we talked about earlier? The chemicals called toxins (TOCK-sins) are like garbage in your blood. Your kidneys act like a net, catching the toxins and other leftovers and turning them into pee.

One part of your blood is called hemoglobin (HEE-moh-gloh-bin). This is what makes your blood red. Hemoglobin goes through a lot of changes as it passes through your body. When it reaches your kidneys, it turns yellow thanks to a chemical called urobilin (yer-ah-BY-lin). Urobilin is kind of like food coloring. The more water you add, the lighter it will be. That's why, if you see dark yellow pee in the toilet, it's time to ask your mom or dad for a cup of water. 

To learn more about pee, check out this article from Kids Health. 

Scientists Discover How to Snap Spaghetti Into Two Perfect Pieces

iStock
iStock

Important news for pasta lovers: Researchers at MIT just figured out how to snap a strand of spaghetti into two perfect pieces, according to New Scientist. The days of having to sweep up the tiny fragments that fly in all directions when you break spaghetti into two pot-ready portions are over.

In 2005, researchers in France figured out why spaghetti cracks into bits: The strand flexes in the opposite direction after the initial snap, creating a “snap-back effect” that causes it to break a second time.

Now, after snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks, MIT mathematicians have the solution. The researchers used a pair of clamps to twist individual strands of spaghetti almost 360 degrees. Next, the two clamps were slowly brought together to bend the stick, resulting in a perfect fracture. This worked for two kinds of spaghetti with different thicknesses—Barilla No. 5 and Barilla No. 7, to be precise.

The process was recorded using a high-speed camera (which can be viewed on MIT's website). While reviewing the footage, researchers realized that adding a twist is key because it prevents the spaghetti stick from forcefully flexing backwards. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Even without equipment, you can can try this at home. It might take a bit of practice, though, so have a couple of boxes handy. Ronald Heisser, a former MIT student who is now a graduate student at Cornell University, came up with the technique for how to manually snap spaghetti in two.

“I would start with my hands opposite each other—one hand upside down and the other right side up—and then make both of them right side up while twisting the spaghetti so you can work your arm strength into it,” Heisser tells Mental Floss.

“You know you're twisting it right when you feel it really trying to untwist itself. Then, you can carefully bring the ends together, trying not to change the twist at all.”

He noted that your hands should also be dry, because oiliness can make the strand slip in your fingers.

However, it's unlikely that anyone has the patience to sit there and snap one strand of spaghetti at a time. So does this trick work for a whole handful of pasta? Dr. Jörn Dunkel, who led the study, says it’s difficult to predict how a handful of spaghetti would fracture, but he believes this technique would reduce the number of pieces you end up with.

“When many spaghetti [strands] become bunched together, they can transfer energy between them, which can change their bending and fracture behavior significantly,” Dr. Dunkel tells Mental Floss. “Very roughly, as a rule of thumb, one would expect that splitting the energy between bending and twisting should always help to reduce the fragment number compared to pure bending.”

Of course, if you want to cook the true Italian way, you’ll leave your spaghetti unsnapped and intact. (Longer pasta is said to wrap around your fork better, making it easier to eat.)

But if you want to try this bend-and-snap technique for yourself, the purists would probably give you a pass.

[h/t New Scientist]

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