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Cryptic creation and the brain that hatched it

The Friar and the Cipher Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone Doubleday: 322 pp., $26

March 27, 2005|Michael Haag | Michael Haag is the author of "The Rough Guide to 'The Da Vinci Code'" and "Alexandria: City of Memory."

In 1912 Wilfrid Voynich, a London book dealer, discovered a mysterious manuscript in a secluded castle outside Rome. At first glance it had the look of a medieval treatise on natural history, but the illustrations depicted a world of fantastical plants, strange astronomical diagrams and vascular systems inhabited by naked women, and the text itself was written in no alphabet or language that Voynich had seen before.

Did the manuscript disguise some profound scientific work or perhaps even a religious heresy? Nobody knows, for the manuscript has eluded decipherment by the world's leading cryptanalysts, including the American and British intelligence officers who cracked the Japanese and German wartime codes and modern university researchers using super-powerful computers.

Or is it, as some people say, an elaborate fraud filled with gibberish? And yet the Voynich Manuscript seems so charming and accessible, as you can see for yourself -- "The Friar and the Cipher" provides numerous illustrations of it in color and black and white -- and these explain much of the manuscript's appeal to experts and amateurs alike, who often come away with the feeling that "I can see something there."

Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone bring their readers up to date with accounts of the latest attempts at deciphering the manuscript. But they also seek its meaning by embarking on a fascinating intellectual odyssey to discover who might have written it and why. They begin with Voynich's own belief that the manuscript was most likely the work of the greatest scientific thinker of the Middle Ages, the Englishman Roger Bacon, whose long life filled most of the 13th century.

Though a Franciscan friar and a devout believer, Bacon did more than anyone to assert the cause of scientific inquiry against the doctrinal authority of the Roman Catholic Church. His great adversary was Thomas Aquinas, a lawyer by training but utterly ignorant of science and mathematics, who insisted that his arguments be accepted in the abstract and on faith. Bacon railed against him for the legalism and sophistry of his teachings, and he argued that philosophy must be squared with experience before it can be accepted as authoritative.

Bacon produced remarkable speculations on microscopes and telescopes, on flying machines and motorized ships and vehicles, on circumnavigating the globe and on the prospect that someday men would be able to walk on the bottom of the sea -- all of this a good 200 to 300 years before such Renaissance figures as Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo. He advocated experiments with plants, herbs and natural substances to yield remedies that could prevent disease and extend life, and he argued that scientific method could be applied to making better instruments and tools, and better weapons too. His views were so revolutionary that he often took the precaution of writing in cipher, and he was under suspicion of heresy and harassed by the church throughout his whole career, during which the Franciscans themselves twice confined and isolated him for a total of 14 years.

Yet despite the surveillance and censorship, not to mention the forced fasts and menial labor, Bacon published many works on mathematics, physics, philosophy and logic. But their importance would be recognized only in later ages, and at his death his papers were gathered up and nailed to the monastery walls at Oxford, where they were left to rot.

Aquinas was raised to sainthood for services rendered to the church, but it was left to science to confer on Bacon the title of Father of the Experimental Method. Yet that division between science and religion was not of Bacon's making. He saw his search for truth in science as a deeply religious act, for in enlarging our knowledge of the world, he believed, we are proclaiming the wonders of God.

As the Goldstones observe, Bacon would have agreed with Stephen Hawking's closing words in "A Brief History of Time": that if we find the answer to why we and the universe exist, that would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we would know the mind of God. As in Bacon's time, that remains the great mystery that human inquiry seeks to decipher. *

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