- 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
- 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.
- The text's author was long-dead. Rugg couldn't watch
him work, but he could get inside his head by trying to replicate his pen-and-ink
technique. The precision paid off. Once, when the ink blotched, Rugg swore
aloud and thought about discarding the table. Then it struck him that the
author must have experienced the same thing. What was the best solution?
Toss it out? No. Paper was expensive. A new grid? No, too much work. Better
to leave the blotch and work around it. That helped him realize that some
of the cells in the original grids must have been left blank - the resulting
missing syllables yielded a variety of word lengths, giving the faked language
even more verisimilitude.
- Rugg's prime suspect for the hoax is con artist Edward
Kelley, a hanger-on in the court of Elizabeth I. Kelley insinuated himself
into the household of the queen's astrologer, John Dee, and acted as a
medium for angels. Modern scholars think Kelley was a fraud; apparently
Dee did not, even when the angels suggested the two men swap wives. (Researchers
believe they took the heavenly advice.)
- Rugg published his hoax theory earlier this year in the
journal Cryptologia. It was bolstered by Laura Aylward, one of his students,
who used software to replicate his work. She found that the Voynich's well-known
statistical anomalies - its unnatural repetition of certain words, a sudden
dropoff in the use of previously common syllables - can all be accounted
for if one uses structured tables and grilles. Still, many Voynich scholars
remain unconvinced. "I know how they feel," Rugg says. "The
rational part of me says it's a hoax; another part says, yes, but what
if 10 percent of it is cipher text, a real message mixed in with all the
wattle and padding? It's a lovely problem."
- The verifier approach has been applied successfully to
only one lovely problem so far - the Voynich - but Rugg is already preparing
to tackle more. "We have to be careful," he says. "We are
not going to barge in on people. We want to approach them with humility
and tact, so they'll see us as partners."
- His approach is built on the observation, noted as far
back as the 1970s, that experts tend to cut to the chase. In their zeal
to get to an answer, they make many little mistakes. (A recent study of
work published in Nature and British Medical Journal, for example, found
that 11 percent of papers had serious statistical errors.) Experts unknowingly
fudge logic to square data with their hypotheses. Or they develop blind
spots after years of working in isolation. They lose their ability to take
a broader view. If all this is true, he says, think of how much big science
is based on flawed intuition.
- He gestures as if he's sculpting something invisible
yet potent. Rugg's face is youthful - sharp nose, prominent forehead, all
brain. He's also a paragon of well-roundedness: He studied French and linguistics,
taught English in Nepal, dabbled in archaeology, and wrote a paper on the
occurrence of left- and right-handedness in Stone Age peoples. Then came
- His work bridges a number of specialties. One of the
tools in the toolkit, as he says, is a field called judgment and decisionmaking.
Psychological studies suggest that experts, defined as someone with 10
years in a discipline, don't have any more reasoning power than the rest
of us. What they have is tons of experience. An old doctor, for instance,
has seen so many cases of the mumps that he no longer follows methodical
reasoning to arrive at a diagnosis. He instead uses a shortcut called pattern-matching:
face red and swollen - mumps. Next!
- Call it what you like - a hunch, an opinion - pattern-matching
is iffy. "Sequential reasoning is formal, almost mathematical,"
Rugg says as we settle down in the campus cafeteria over mochas. "If
this, then that. Pattern-matching is fast and efficient. The doctor knows
what's wrong with you before you do. That's fine if he's right, but he
can be miscued."
- Besides pattern-matching incorrectly, experts sometimes
misunderstand critical terms. People in similar but specialized fields
will find it hard to communicate. A hydrogeologist and a petroleum engineer
both took Geology 101, yet their visceral understanding of the word rock
may be wildly divergent. Luckily, psychologists have developed a battery
of methods - called elicitation techniques - to draw out and define what
- As a journeyman researcher in expert reasoning, Rugg
ferreted out errors and unseen problems in various industrial and office
management cases. It was good work for a human-error psychologist, but
he wanted to tackle bigger issues. If experts were making mistakes in doctor's
offices and factories, he reasoned, they were making them in labs, too.
"My gut feeling is that a lot of research involves pattern-matching,"
Rugg says. "It guides what is investigated and then the design of
- Sometime in 1996, while having lunch with colleague Joanne
Hyde, it occurred to Rugg that he could pull together all the tools psychologists
use - elicitation techniques, the vast literature on human error, decisionmaking
models, formal logic and reasoning - to create a novel form of problem-solving:
a scientific method to verify the methods of science.
- The verifier method boils down to seven steps: 1) amass
knowledge of a discipline through interviews and reading; 2) determine
whether critical expertise has yet to be applied in the field; 3) look
for bias and mistakenly held assumptions in the research; 4) analyze jargon
to uncover differing definitions of key terms; 5) check for classic mistakes
using human-error tools; 6) follow the errors as they ripple through underlying
assumptions; 7) suggest new avenues for research that emerge from steps
one through six.
- Experts want to believe that their domain is unique,
requiring specialized tools, approaches, and thinking. Rugg was saying
no, you could use one kit to solve a million problems, in many fields.
Many experts would object to such a theory, but computer scientists were
intrigued. "In computing, we're interested in understanding knowledge,"
says Bashar Nuseibeh, a UK researcher whose work was influential in the
development of the Unified Modeling Language. "Gordon is asking, Can
you look at the commonality between two domains of research and solve problems
within them with a single approach? I don't know. It's a theory."
- Equipped with his verifier toolkit, Rugg tried finding
a wealthy partner to get his new method off the ground. At least one pharmaceutical
company turned him down. "It was a catch-22," Rugg says. "No
one would take a chance on us unless we showed them we could do it first.
But I couldn't show I could do it until someone let me test it." That
of course is where the Voynich manuscript came in. Now he's poised to tackle
a much bigger question.
- 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,"
- 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
- 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.
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