"We think in generalities, we live in details"
Verifying the Scientific Method: Gordon Rugg and the Voynich Manuscript
« on: 2010-08-25 05:35:36 »
[Blunderov] The Scientic Method consists of a system in which hypotheses are falsified. But how does one hold the Scientific Method itself to it's own standard? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? By 'verification' - or so Gordon Rugg suggests.
The Voynich Manuscript* led me to this Wired post which is a little old now but no less relevant for that. This document is wormhole into a kaleidoscopic universe of wheels within wheels both ancient and modern. It's all here to be had for those who like their thrills above the waistline: secret writing, chimerae, cryptanalysis, conspiracy theory, larceny, espionage, alchemy, astrology, Bohemia and ancient monkery. All this AND forensic linguistics! Who could ask for more? But let me detain you no further....
Scientific Method Man
Gordon Rugg cracked the 400-year-old mystery of the Voynich manuscript. Next up: everything from Alzheimer's to the origins of the universe.
By Joseph D'AgnesePage 1 of 4 next »
Two years ago, an Englishman named Gordon Rugg slipped back in time. Night after night he spread his papers on the kitchen table once his children had gone to bed. Working on faux parchment with a steel-nibbed calligraphic pen, he scribbled a strange, unidentifiable, vaguely medieval script. Transliterated into the Roman alphabet, some of the words read: "qopchedy qokedydy qokoloky qokeedy qokedy shedy." As he wrote, he struggled to get inside the mind of the person who had first scrawled this incomprehensible text some 400 years ago.
By day, Rugg, a 48-year-old psychologist, teaches in the computer science department of Keele University, near Manchester, England. By night, as an intellectual exercise, he has been researching one of the world's great oddities: the Voynich manuscript, a hand-lettered book written in an unknown code that has frustrated cryptographers since its discovery in an Italian villa in 1912. How impregnable is the Voynich? During World War II, US Army code breakers - the guys who blew away Nazi ciphers - grappled with the manuscript in their spare time and came up empty. Since then, decoding the book's contents has become an obsession for geeks and puzzle nuts everywhere.
Then came Rugg. In three months, he cooked up the most persuasive explanation yet for the 234-page text: Sorry, folks, there is no code - it's a hoax! Lifelong Voynichologists were impressed with his reasoning and proofs, even if they were a little chagrined. "The Voynich is such a challenge," says Rugg, "such a social activity. But then along comes someone who says 'Oh, it's just a lot of meaningless gibberish.' It's as if we're all surfers, and the sea has dried up."
When the news of Rugg's breakthrough was published last winter, everyone missed the bigger story. Rugg cracked the Voynich not because he was smarter, but because he focused on what everyone else had missed. Then again, this came naturally to Rugg: He has made a career out of studying how experts acquire knowledge yet screw up nevertheless. In 1996, he and his colleagues developed a rigorous method for peering over the shoulders of experts - doctors, software engineers, pilots, physicists - watching how they work and think, testing their logic, and uncovering ways to help them solve problems.
Rugg calls it the verifier approach, and the Voynich was its first major test. If Rugg gets his way, verifiers will revolutionize the scientific method and help solve other seemingly unsolvable mysteries, such as the origins of the universe or the cause of Alzheimer's disease.
Rugg was hardly the first to dream of cracking the Voynich. Ever since the manuscript resurfaced - bookseller Wilfrid Voynich bought it from Italian Jesuits 92 years ago - a stream of formidable scholars have pored over it. Some make pilgrimages to Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where the volume resides. Others download JPEGs of the pages, which are available free on the Web.
Rugg saw something different and special about the manuscript: It would make a perfect beta test for the verifier approach. As he read about the Voynich and began applying his method - amassing knowledge about a problem and assessing the kinds of expertise applied so far are steps one and two - he saw that no one had seriously explored the idea that the book was a grand hoax. As Philip Neal, one of the world's leading Voynichologists, says, "It has been argued - I used to argue myself - that the phonetic structure was beyond the powers of a 16th-century forger to create, so that the text must be a real language or an unknown type of cipher."
Since none of the experts thought a hoax was plausible, no one had looked very hard for a hoax solution. To compound the problem, many Voynichologists were specialists: linguists, cryptographers, mathematicians, medievalists, and literary scholars. But the ideal Voynich expert - a code-breaking, medieval-savvy hoaxologist - probably didn't exist. And the resulting gap had allowed a major problem to go unsolved for the better part of a century.
This "expertise gap" is rife in academia, but few recognize it, let alone know how to correct for it. It starts with the best of intentions. Institutions want top-notch people, so they offer incentives to attract and groom experts. Young grad students learn early that if they want to carve out a niche, they must confine their interests to a narrow field. It's not enough to work in spinal cord regeneration; it must be stem cell-based solutions to the problem. That's great if a researcher just happens to stumble on a perfect stem cell cure. But as specialists get further from their core expertise, the possible solutions - what's been tried, what hasn't, what was never properly examined, what ought to be tried again - get even more elusive.
With the verifier approach, Rugg begins by asking experts to draw a mental map of their field. From there, he stitches together many maps to form an atlas of the universe of knowledge on the subject. "You look for an area of overlap that doesn't contain much detail," he says. "If it turns out there's an adjoining area which everyone thinks is someone else's territory, then that's a potential gap."
So here's Rugg, studying the Voynich on his own and asking himself: If I were living in the 16th century and wanted to make a book that looked mysterious but was really gibberish, how could I do it cheaply and easily? He deliberately searched for low tech tools capable of generating text that seemed random. In his reading, he came across an encoding device called the Cardan Grille, first described in 1550 by Girolamo Cardano. (See "How to Create an 'Indecipherable' Manuscript")
Using such an encoder, Rugg figures it would take a smart fraudster an hour or two to write an entire page. A Voynich-size book might take about three or four months to create with illustrations. The time and effort would definitely be worth it: In the Elizabethan era, Rudolph II, the Holy Roman emperor, became fascinated with the beautifully wrought manuscript (he believed it was the work of 13th-century philosopher Roger Bacon) and paid 600 gold ducats for it - about $30,000 today.
Peter Crome is the deputy head of Keele's medical school and a professor of geriatrics. When he smiles, his eyes narrow to jovial slits. If I were slowly losing my mind, I think, I would want Crome to break it to me. "Alzheimer's is a mystery," he says. "An odd one. Although we know a lot about it, we don't know what causes it. All we can say at this point to someone we think has it is, Come back next year. If you're worse, you have it."
Alzheimer's is a classic candidate for the verifier approach: It's been studied by tens of thousands of scientists, yet still defies basic definition. Dozens of causes are under investigation: Could it be toxins in the environment? Aluminum pots and pans? Smoking or not smoking? Drinking or not? Blows to the head? Lack of mental exercise? Depression? Too much education?
Rugg met Crome two years ago, while he was working on the Voynich, and proposed verifying Alzheimer's studies to suggest new approaches. Crome realized he was being handed a gift. In addition to becoming too specialized, science has become too dense. The National Institutes of Health's PubMed database alone lists more than 40,000 papers pertaining to Alzheimer's. Regardless of the scientific field - medicine, nuclear physics, mathematics, whatever - PhD students typically take a year just to read what others have done before them, and even then they are usually just scratching the surface. The papers pile up faster than you can turn pages. "I can't stay current in my own area - drugs - let alone all of Alzheimer's," Crome says.
So how does Rugg imagine he can tackle this vast field? He's not a doctor, and he freely admits that the sum of his Alzheimer's knowledge has come from the popular press. "The idea is, sit down with these experts, have a cup of coffee, and ask, Now, off the record, what are the main theories in your field?" he says. "Then look at only those key papers in those fields. We would have consultants in each discipline and get them to help us crawl over those papers."
Rugg doesn't expect to find evidence of pattern-matching in a printed document, but there are always clues. "You look at the language," he explains. "Sometimes you'll see areas where the authors write, 'This result strongly resembles something else.' That's an opportunity to investigate more closely." Such a phrase is usually built on mountains of assumptions, which an author presumes (sometimes erroneously) that all potential readers understand.
As a first step, Rugg is preparing to apply for a grant of about $350,000 - enough to pay for a postdoc and some expenses for three years. For the moment, he's resisted the temptation to look up a single Alzheimer's paper. "I want to approach this material fresh," Rugg says.
He's eager to start on the project because medical problems are so urgent. "Alzheimer's is a terrible way to die," he says. "If you could do something to help, you could feel really, really good."
Already there are signs that the Voynich breakthrough has vanquished the nagging catch-22. Following Rugg's success with the manuscript, potential collaborators seem to surface daily. Astrophysicists at Keele have agreed to work with him on sorting out seemingly incompatible theories in modern physics. A biochemist at UC San Diego approached him about untangling questions in exobiology, the study of the chemical origins of life. A researcher at the UK's University of Warwick wants to apply the verifier method to attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. And an emeritus art historian at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute thinks Rugg can help her resolve mysteries about ancient Greco-Roman settlements.
All these collaborations are in the earliest stages. "It could be that I just got lucky once and never again," Rugg says, then pauses. "But suppose we find a breakthrough in Alzheimer's and physics?" At the very least, he'll need a bigger kitchen table.
How to Create an "Indecipherable" Manuscript
1. Stock a grid with randomly generated prefixes, midfixes, and suffixes.
2. Using heavy card stock, cut a three-slot grille that exposes word fragments.
3. Work through the table, placing the grille over three cells to form a new word.
4. Copy the words onto the manuscript page.
5. To vary the pattern, periodically cut a new grille and repeat steps 3 and 4.
Joseph D'Agnese (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a science writer living in Italy.
[Bl.] PS. The illustrations are well worth a gander.
The weird female figures and their strange connections could easily be the product of some mildly erotic creative doodling, but something that gives me some pause with regard the the 'hoax' solution is how very difficult and time consuming it must have been to so consistently produce so many illustrations of plants that bear no resemblance to any known species! This seems to me to be a task similar in magnitude of difficuty to that of attempting to obey an instruction not to think of a white elephant Furthermore, the images must have been created before the text was added because it is clear that the text has been arranged around the images and not the other way round.