The Voynich Manuscript: Finally Cracked?

[Image courtesy of BBC.com.]

A year and a half ago, I introduced my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers to the Voynich Manuscript, a cryptologic curiosity unlike anything else we’ve seen before. Discovered over a hundred years ago but believed to date back to the fifteenth century, the Voynich Manuscript is a hand-written book that has baffled linguists and puzzlers for decades.

The writing, which reads from right to left, has yet to be identified. It’s unclear if this is some sort of sophisticated code, an unknown or lost language which was then encoded, an invented language, an example of glossolalia (a written equivalent of speaking in tongues), or simply an elaborate hoax.

The only known copy of the text resides in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, although Yale has printed replica texts.

From the Yale University website:

Many call the fifteenth-century codex, commonly known as the “Voynich Manuscript,” the world’s most mysterious book. Written in an unknown script by an unknown author, the manuscript has no clearer purpose now than when it was rediscovered in 1912 by rare books dealer Wilfrid Voynich. The manuscript appears and disappears throughout history, from the library of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II to a secret sale of books in 1903 by the Society of Jesus in Rome. The book’s language has eluded decipherment, and its elaborate illustrations remain as baffling as they are beautiful.

[One of several fold-out pages in the manuscript.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

But computer scientists at the University of Alberta believe they’ve finally unraveled some of the mysteries behind the Voynich Manuscript.

They designed an artificial intelligence program with the intent of figuring out the language in the manuscript. The AI analyzed versions of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 400 different languages in order to establish different linguistic patterns to compare against the text of the Voynich Manuscript.

And according to the AI, the text was most likely written in Hebrew.

Now that they had a language to work with, they needed to begin deciphering precisely how that language was encrypted.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

There have been many theories regarding what form of encryption was employed in the Voynich Manuscript. Some investigators theorized that vowels had been removed from the words in the text in order to obscure their meaning further, while others have suggested writing that has been mirrored or otherwise written backwards. Anagrams and other forms of word manipulation are a common theory, and the University of Alberta team went with a variation on the anagram idea.

They theorized that the encoded words were alphagrams, anagrams where the letters in a word are placed in alphabetical order. (For instance, if VOYNICH was encoded this way, it would read CHINOVY.)

Turning loose the AI once again under these parameters, they found that 80% of the words in the Voynich text could be anagrammed into Hebrew words. They managed to cobble together a possible opening sentence for the text:

“She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.”

Is it clunky? Sure. But it’s also a partial translation that has held up to some scrutiny, which is better than most amateur AND professional attempts to crack the Voynich Manuscript have done.

The team is currently hoping to team up with experts in ancient Hebrew and continue the process, but until then, they’re excited to apply their AI to other ancient manuscripts to see what it uncovers.

Although we are a long way from calling the Voynich mystery solved, this is a very intriguing step forward for cryptographers and codebreaking enthusiasts everywhere.


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A Puzzly Touch of Spring!

[Image courtesy of Atlas Obscura.]

It snowed over the weekend here on the East Coast, and after a disappointing prediction of six more weeks of winter from some of the more famous groundhogs around the world, you may find yourself longing for spring and all the marvelous greenery it promises.

In that spirit, I thought I would dedicate this February day to some mind-bogglingly lovely mazes that combine nature’s beauty with the ingenuity of humans.

[Image courtesy of Mental Floss.]

To start, feast your eyes upon the lavender labyrinth at Cherry Point Farm and Market in Shelby, Michigan, one of the oldest operating farms in Michigan.

The owner began designing the labyrinth in 2001, and it has since grown large enough to be seen on Google Earth! Finding your way to the center of the labyrinth should take about an hour, and attendance is free!

Be sure to visit in mid-July, when the French lavender is in full bloom, and enjoy the gorgeous scenery not far from Lake Michigan.

[Image courtesy of Atlas Obscura.]

Of course, if you’re looking for a bit more of a challenge when it comes to your homegrown mazes, the Longleat Hedge Maze in Wiltshire, England will pique your interest.

It’s the longest hedge maze in the world — but not the largest — and consists of more than a mile and a half of meandering paths, including dead ends.

[Image courtesy of Atlas Obscura.]

With six raised bridges and a tower from which to survey the entire maze, it’s one of the most striking labyrinths I’ve ever seen.

It’s actually one of several mazes on the property — others include the Lunar Labyrinth and the Sun Maze — but it’s by far the largest on the property. Although it only dates back to 1975 (while some mazes in England date back centuries), it’s truly a sight to behold.

[Image courtesy of Atlas Obscura.]

To close out our look at labyrinths around the world, we venture into the southern hemisphere to explore the Enchanted Maze Garden in Arthurs Seat, Australia.

Although it is the year-round home of “a traditional hedge maze with a Japanese Garden at its center, an ancient turf labyrinth, and a circular roomed maze for children,” it’s the constantly evolving Maize Maze that puts Arthurs Seat in the record books every year.

Each year, a new maze is designed, and with GPS assistance, over 100,000 stalks of corn are planted to create the Maize Maze. Sprawling across two and a half acres, the Maize Maze is open from mid-February through late April.

Hopefully these glimpses into the amazing depth and breadth of hedge and corn mazes around the world has you looking forward to springtime puzzling outdoors! Or, at the very least, not feeling so dreary about winter.


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Four Dimensional Hats: A Visual Wonder!

[Image courtesy of Brilliant.org.]

The mobius strip is one of the simplest objects in the world, and yet, the most mind-bending. If you take a strip of paper, add a single twist, and tape the ends together, you transform a two-sided object into a single-sided object. It becomes one continuous surface.

(We’ve discussed the concept briefly in the blog before, but in bagel form.)

But did you know that you can take that idea a step further and end up with this?

[Image courtesy of math.union.edu.]

This is a Klein bottle, an object with one continuous surface. If you trace a path along the surface, you will traverse from the “inside” to the “outside” and back again without breaking stride.

Yes, the word “bottle” is a bit of a misnomer, since this won’t actually hold any liquids; they would just flow along the surface, going “inside” and back “out” without pooling anywhere. This is a result of a mistranslation, as the German word “flache” (surface) was translated as “flasche” (bottle).

This limerick sums up the Klein bottle nicely:

A German topologist named Klein
Thought the Mobius Loop was divine.
Said he, “If you glue
The edges of two,
You get a weird bottle like mine.”

[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

Although the Klein bottle can’t quite exist as a three-dimensional object — since the object has to pass through itself, which can only happen in four dimensions — we can come close enough to create some impressive approximations, like the glass “Klein bottles” pictured above.

YouTuber and physics student Toby Hendy has even managed to create a technique to knit yourself a Klein bottle hat! Check it out:

Although it’s not an optical illusion, it’s still a visual puzzle for the eyes and the mind, one that has captured the imaginations of mathematicians, artists, and many others throughout the years.


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It’s Called a CrossWORD, Not a Crossnumber!

When it comes to crosswords, every solver and constructor has their own ideas about what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate.

And I don’t just mean the age-old debate of pen vs. pencil. Whether we’re talking about answer words, abbreviations, cluing styles, gimmicks like shared letters in one box, or even the number of black squares in a grid, the sheer variation and customization possible is bound to lead to differing opinions.

A recent New York Times Tuesday Mini puzzle was the source of some consternation for solvers when it turned out that the first three boxes across were intended to be filled with numbers, not letters.

The clue? “Easy as ____,” which many solvers mistook, understandably, for PIE. When you factor in that many Times puzzle solvers value their solving speeds as well as their solving experience, the extra seconds (or minutes) “wasted” on a clue that feels misleading can be frustrating.

Some of those solvers took their concerns (and complaints) to Twitter, prompting a response from the official Wordplay Twitter account, which offered up the Easter egg that “123” referred to not only the answer to 1 Across, but also the date the puzzle appeared, 1/23.

That is a nice little bonus, but it wasn’t referenced at all in the clue, so it did little to appease those who were upset with what they consider a breach in crossword etiquette.

[Image courtesy of Shutterstock.]

Although I absolutely sympathize with being unexpectedly flummoxed by a clue — it happens to me all the time as a solver — I must admit that this sort of thing doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind when multiple letters share a grid square, or if there’s a number there instead of a letter.

In fact, Alex Eaton-Salners employed the same thing in his “Read the Fine Print” Fireball Crosswords puzzle, and it made my favorite puzzles of 2017 list.

Clearly something like this is going to bother some solvers more than others. What do you think, fellow puzzlers? Does using numbers instead of letters in crosswords bother you or violate your idea of what a good crossword should be?

What about having multiple letters inside one grid square? Do you think that’s a cheat — a way to get around constructing something that actually fits the space — or a clever conceit allowing for more grid and theme flexibility? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject!


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A Brand New Puzzle Bundle for the Penny Dell Crosswords App!

That’s right, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers! It’s a special Wednesday bonus post to deliver an unexpected treat for fans of the Penny Dell Crosswords App!

We’ve just released a terrific puzzle collection to brighten up your dreary February days!

Value Pack 1 is loaded with 150 topnotch puzzles — that’s more than you’d get with one of our deluxe sets! — and it’s available for in-app purchase for both Android and iOS users right now!

With razor-sharp clues and the world-class construction you’ve come to expect from PuzzleNation, you can’t go wrong with this fantastic deal!

We’re dedicated to bringing you the best puzzle-solving experience available, right in your pocket, ready to go at a moment’s notice! That’s the PuzzleNation guarantee.

Happy solving everyone!


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Last-Minute Puzzly Valentine’s Day Ideas!

Valentine’s Day looms large, and sometimes it’s hard to find that perfect way to express your love for that certain someone… particularly if that certain someone is the puzzly type.

But have no fear! We’re here with some terrific last-minute puzzly ideas for Valentine’s Day!

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

Have you considered a puzzle bouquet? You could grab some newspaper crosswords and origami them into flower shapes for a fun puzzle-fueled spin on a holiday classic.

Or maybe they like coded puzzles? You could write the object of your affection a coded love letter!

All throughout history, people have employed different tricks and techniques to keep their private messages away from prying eyes, and you could do the same! Whether it’s a simple letter-shifting cipher or something more complex, just make sure your message is worth reading. =)

[Image courtesy of Shutterstock.]

Or maybe you’d like to show off how much you know about him or her. Then you could whip up a little scavenger hunt! You could leave clues around leading to a gift, or a romantic dinner, or some other grand finale. Maybe a rose with each clue.

(You could make each clue or destination about your relationship or about your partner, allowing you to show off how well you know them… where you first met, favorite meals, favorite movie… )

If you don’t want to leave things around where anyone could nab them, keep a few small tokens on you, giving one for each destination reached or clue solved. Heck, you could enlist a friend to text clues to your special someone once they’ve reached a particular destination!

For a family-friendly version of the same idea, have the kids help you cut out and hide jigsaw pieces around the house that, when put together, spell out a Valentine’s message, a picture of the family, or a picture of some gift or event to come!

You could even walk around and play Valentine’s Day Bingo.

Go for a walk or take your loved one out to dinner, and see if one of you can get bingo by observing different things. A couple holding hands as they walk, a Valentine’s Day proposal, outrageously priced flowers…

Even on short notice, the possibilities are endless when you put your mind to it. Happy Valentine’s Day, fellow puzzlers!


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