The Voynich Manuscript: A soundtrack

Earlier this year, HarperOne published Blind Spot: Why We Fail to See the Solution Right in Front of Us, a book about I co-authored with Gordon Rugg, a British scientist who works in the field of human error. For lack of a better term, Rugg is an expert on human expertise, particularly what happens when those experts screw up.

I have planned a couple of posts with Rugg that I think you’ll enjoy. The first was about an event that occurred during the Second Punic Wars. This one’s about the sort of music a scientist listens to when he’s immersed in his work. The only time I ever visited Rugg’s office in Keele, England, I noticed tons of music CDs on his desk. This prompted me to ask what music, if any, does he listen to  when he does science. (Above, some images of the Voynich Manuscript, which plays a role in the book, and a shot of Rugg working with quill and ink to replicate low-tech technologies that might have been used to create the book.)

Dr. Rugg?

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Music for Doing Science:

Research is a roller coaster — the high of a promising discovery, and the low that you get when your beautiful theory is killed by an ugly fact. Some of my music is good for handling those extremes.

When I hit a high, a good way of keeping my feet on the ground is listening to It’s hard to be humble by Mac Davis. It’s about an incredibly handsome, successful, intelligent, wonderful man trying his best to be humble in spite of his amazing wonderfulness. Very amusing, and a good grounding experience. 

For some reason, there are a lot more tracks in my collection that are good for dealing with the lows. For immediate gung-ho motivation, it’s hard to beat the Cantonese version of YMCA by George Lam. For sustained gung-ho motivation, there’s the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band, on the grounds that if massed bagpipes can’t motivate you nothing can. I favour their album Live in Canada – the Megantic Outlaw. The only downside is that it’s a bit antisocial, even on headphones; it takes a lot to confine bagpipe music.

When you’re grappling with a research problem, or writing an article, concentration is essential. A lot of my collection is rich, intricate music, either instrumental, or in a language that I don’t speak, so I can blot out the outside world without distraction. I have a fair amount of desert blues music – Tamikrest, Tinariwen, Toumast, and compilations – and of Warsaw Village Band albums, plus Philip Glass and Lisa Gerrard. 

For the sort of work I do, it’s important to keep thinking differently. That’s a recurrent theme in the music I listen to; bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Miranda Sex Garden and Fever Ray. The “concentration” music also fits into this category. 

It’s always a joy to discover a new band or a new type of music; one of my projects involves developing better ways of finding music that will really hit the spot.

Playlist for the Voynich Manuscript:

I always think of the story as entering history with [Queen Elizabeth I’s court astrologer, mathematician, and all-around genius] John Dee, [conman] Edward Kelley, and the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph; before that, there’s no record of the book. So, in terms of music, I’d go for a selection mirroring the events in the records.

First, calm, ordered lute music, for the world that Dee was living in when he met Kelley. I have Paul O’Dette’s album of lute music by Kapsberger – that’s a little post-Elizabethan, but it captures the mood well.

Then, music by the Warsaw Village Band, for the alien-ness of Europe to Dee’s family when they set out to visit Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor.

[Later, during a bizarre scrying session, Kelley claims to hear voice of an angel suggest that he and Dee wife-swap.] In particular, [I’d suggest] Woman in Hell from their Uprooting album, for what Dee’s wife would have felt, and Grey Horse, from the same album, for Kelley’s feelings for Dee’s wife; that’s one of the most sultry songs ever. 

After that, an abrupt change to blues and jazz when the manuscript re-appears, shifting gradually through to songs of the Second World War, when the American military codebreakers were trying and failing to crack the manuscript. 

To end, Siouxsie and the Banshees, particularly Juju, for when I was tackling the manuscript, blotting out distractions with their music.