Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Loose ends

When I was a kid, my family bought a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica. (This was near the end of the run of the fine old 14th edition, before the bizarre innovations of the 15th edition. But I digress.) I loved those beautiful, heavy books. Some sections, like the long article on Space Travel, I would read time and again. Kids at school would try to tease me by saying that I probably sat around at home reading the encyclopedia. Well, yeah. Your point?

The best thing was just to sit on the floor by the bookcase and flip through the index, looking up whatever caught my eye, following any cross-references that seemed interesting. It was, I realize now, much like wandering the Web. Sometimes I would stumble across a brief entry that somehow suggested a wide unknown vista beyond. Gyges the tyrant was king of Lydia; but where exactly, and when, was Lydia? The answers were easy to find, of course, in other entries in other volumes; but sometimes I would hesitate, savoring the faint scent of mystery.

Later, when I read Borges's story "Tlon, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius", I felt a queer stir of recognition. That story, you may recall, concerns the discovery of an encyclopedia article, then a whole volume of an encyclopedia, describing countries in a strange, apparently fictional world. And I loved Milorad Pavic's The Dictionary of the Khazars, a novel in the form of an encyclopedia (or really three different encyclopedias). There is something about the labyrinth of an encyclopedia that has an aura of magic about it. Some innocent-looking cross-reference, some obscure entry about a place that you can't quite pinpoint on a map, might lead to wonders. Maybe, even now, there is some chain of hyperlinks that would take you to worlds beyond the reach of Google.

Along with the Encyclopedia Britannica, over the next few years, came two series of yearbooks. One series, the ordinary yearbooks, were pretty dull; but the volumes of the other series were about "Science and the Future", and they included Scientific American-type articles on rockets and robotics and all sorts of neat things. I read these again and again, too. One article, a long-time favorite of mine, was about codes and cryptography. And one whole page of that article was given over to a color illustration of the Voynich manuscript.

The Voynich manuscript, in case you have not heard, is a codex of a couple of hundred vellum pages, written at least five hundred years ago but possibly more. It was discovered in 1912 by a collector named Voynich, from whom it got its common name. Some pages of the manuscript have elaborate botantical drawings, while others have astronomical diagrams or sketches of medicinal herbs. There are pictures of nymphs swimming through systems of basins and pipes -- weird images that for me have something of Heironymous Bosch and something of Dr. Seuss. All of these drawings are annotated by thousands and thousands of words of text. But the text is written in a script unlike any other on Earth, in a language that no one has ever deciphered.

There is actually quite a lot about the Voynich manuscript on the Web, and I recommend that you follow some links to get a taste of it. It is an elegant mystery. There are a great many theories about it, of course. Some argue that it was a fraud from the start, that the writing is meaningless. The statistical properties of the script are queer, but there are some indications -- like the fact that the "words" of the text are distributed according to Zipf's Law -- that hint that some real language is being concealed.

Why do I bring this up? I ran across the Voynich manuscript on the Web this morning, following a link from a link from a page about something else. I realized that, ever since I first saw it in the encyclopedia yearbook all those years ago, the Voynich manuscript has been noodling around in the back of my mind. It has always represented to me a kind of Loose End of the world, something that is not quite figured out and tidied up in the Standard Model of Everything. It is uncanny. But it is more than a ghost story or a queer experience: it is a disturbing artifact, a piece of the objective world that does not appear to fit. Even if it is a fraud, as is likely, it is a fraud with remarkable properties that would not be easy to reproduce. (The Shroud of Turin is another such.)

What do we do with such loose ends? Well, mostly we ignore them, and rightly so. The world is wide and various; there will inevitably be things that do not quite seem to fit. This would be true even if there were no supernatural forces or unknown dimensions of reality. Our powers of explanation are finite, and certain key clues have been lost forever. Some things will simply remain loose ends. Get used to it and move on.

Nevertheless, the loose ends continue to fascinate us, and I think it is good to give into that fascination. Over the next weeks and months I think I may take a closer look at the Voynich manuscript, learn about its history and study its properties, evaluate the theories that have been proposed, maybe spin a few of my own.

A loose end is, after all, the obvious place to begin a thread. I'll let you know if come up with something interesting.


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