Gordon Rugg

The World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript

I thought I’d revisit this post I did back in 2011, because the video is hilarious and makes me smile. Little did I know when I wrote it that I’d write a book with Gordon Rugg a few years later, entitled Blind Spot, which touched upon some of the issues inherent in his Voynich work.

One of many bizarre pages from the Voynich manuscript.

One of many bizarre pages from the Voynich manuscript.

A few years ago, when I was living in Europe, I wrote an article for Wired magazine about a scientist named Gordon Rugg who put forth a novel explanation for what many people call the world’s most mysterious manuscript. The Voynich Manuscript, discovered in Italy in 1912, is a bizarre tome written in an unusual alphabet, language or code that no one — not even the world’s best cryptographers — has been able to decode.

Rugg thinks the book is not written in a code at all, but is instead a colossal hoax. His peer-reviewed journal article described a possible reason and mechanism for this. The Voynich MS was back in the news recently because of some Carbon-14 tests which dated the vellum, or paper, to the early half of the 15th Century (between 1404-1438).

Journalist/iconoclast/Village Voice founder John Wilcock corresponded recently with Rugg to see what he thinks of the new data, since it directly contradicts one of Rugg’s pet theories that the book may be the work of Elizabethan con man Edward Kelley.

Wilcock’s post, which went up a few days ago, hints that hoax theory is not yet dead. Nat Geo ran a video recently about the mysterious book. This clip is from an earlier TV documentary that was delightfully melodramatic.

By the way, there are nearly 200 more Voynich videos on YouTube, more than you’d ever want to watch. I don’t need to learn more, frankly. It’s clear to me that the book is the work of extraterrestrials.


This post first appeared on my old blog on April 8, 2011. I’m moving it here in an effort to rescue my old content.

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Paging Dr. Gordon Rugg

Paging Dr. Rugg   My co-author Gordon Rugg is in the news this week over a recent news story about the mysterious Voynich manuscript. A scientist in Delaware sparked the coverage by arguing that some of the strange plants in the book look a lot like New World plants.  Rugg, who is the author of  Blind Spot , the book we cowrote, is quoted in  this piece in the  New Scientist.     The blog  Moby Lives covers the story here , in more understandable language. And Rugg  continues his series on how to hoax the Voynich here .

Paging Dr. Rugg

My co-author Gordon Rugg is in the news this week over a recent news story about the mysterious Voynich manuscript. A scientist in Delaware sparked the coverage by arguing that some of the strange plants in the book look a lot like New World plants.

Rugg, who is the author of Blind Spot, the book we cowrote, is quoted in this piece in the New Scientist. The blog Moby Lives covers the story here, in more understandable language. And Rugg continues his series on how to hoax the Voynich here.

The Voynich Manuscript: A soundtrack

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?

* * *

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.

The Battle of Cannae: The Biggest “Oh-Sh*t!” Moment in History

Cannae: The Biggest “Oh-Sh*t!” Moment in History   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 is about an event that occurred during the Second Punic Wars. Deep in the heart of southern Italy, the great Carthaginian general Hannibal slaughtered about 60,000 Roman soldiers  in a single day.   It’s considered the greatest tactical military maneuver ever, and the biggest defeat the Romans ever faced. I asked Dr. Rugg to explain why he calls this event the biggest “oh-shit” moment in history, and why it’s such a major touchstone in our book.  Dr. Rugg?    Cannae and the candle    The Victorian physicist Michael Faraday famously used an ordinary candle to demonstrate some of the key principles of chemistry and physics. It was a brilliant example because of its simplicity and purity. A single candle was all he needed to demonstrate those key principles, and to demonstrate how those key principles were reflected in everyday life.  Cannae does for human error what the candle did for chemistry and physics. It illustrates a key point with elegant simplicity. Cannae is one of the few battles that unfolded exactly as one commander intended. With most battles, there are key points where a single chance event could have changed the outcome. That wasn’t the case at Cannae. What happened on that day in 216 BC was as inevitable and inescapable as the events in a Greek tragedy.  And, like a Greek tragedy, Cannae was inexorable, brutal and bloody in its outcome. It was a devastating demonstration of how one common human error can lead to tens of thousands of deaths. That’s how many Romans were killed in a single day at Cannae.  The Roman commander saw events unfolding just the way he expected, with his large army pushing back the battle line of Hannibal’s much smaller army into a deep arc. That was the shape of a battle line that was just about to break, which is what the Romans wanted; a broken battle line could then be mopped up in detail.  What the Roman commander hadn’t spotted was that the shape of the two armies was also the shape of one army surrounded on three sides by the other army.  The Romans realised their mistake when Hannibal’s cavalry slammed into the back of the Roman line, closing the trap. Some Romans managed to fight their way out while the trap was closing. After the trap had closed, the rest were slaughtered to the last man.  The Roman commander’s error is known as   confirmation bias  . You see the evidence that fits with what you want to see; you don’t see that the same evidence also fits equally well with a completely different explanation.  I care about confirmation bias because it’s one of the commonest mistakes in research. It’s at the heart of the widespread popular misconception that scientists set out to prove that their theories are right. Trying to prove that your theory is right is a really stupid idea. You can’t be right all the time. Nobody is. Experts actually make more mistakes than novices, because the experts are testing out possible explanations all the time. That’s how the fictional medic Dr. Gregory House works. Nobody remembers the half-dozen possible diagnoses that he tries and abandons before he finds the correct diagnosis that everybody does remember. That’s how good science operates. You test ideas, and see which ones are the best fit for what you’re seeing. It’s about how well the different possibilities match the evidence, not about how good you are at guessing.  A common pattern in bad research is that the researcher starts off with a pet theory, then does a study that turns up evidence that’s consistent with their pet theory, and decides that this is evidence of their theory being right. This one simple type of mistake has squandered huge amounts of time, effort and money, and has led to untold needless human tragedy. It doesn’t just affect the studies themselves. Some bad studies manage to become orthodoxy, leading to wasted opportunities, and making later researchers spend years unpicking the mess before they can start rebuilding on sound foundations.  At Cannae, Hannibal defeated the Romans by using their confirmation bias against them. The number of Romans killed in that one battle was far greater than the number of dead at Gettysburg, or any other battle in the American Civil War; it was greater than the number of American dead in the entire Vietnam War. Sixty thousand dead, in one day.  But that’s probably just a drop in the ocean compared to the number of unnecessary deaths caused by the right answers being missed through confirmation bias, not just by researchers, but by anyone who looks at the evidence before making a decision, and sees only the shape that they want to see in that evidence.  That’s why Cannae was such an important story within  Blind Spot . That’s why we’re testing different ways of showing evidence and looking at evidence, in the hope that some of those ways might prevent at least some deaths or loss or suffering. As the examples in  Blind Spot  show, it’s a realistic possibility. Researchers such as  Gerd Gigerenzer  have already saved lives by helping emergency doctors to avoid faulty judgments in the emergency wards. There’s real hope, and that’s worth a lot.  Image:   Wikipedia

Cannae: The Biggest “Oh-Sh*t!” Moment in History

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 is about an event that occurred during the Second Punic Wars. Deep in the heart of southern Italy, the great Carthaginian general Hannibal slaughtered about 60,000 Roman soldiers in a single day.

It’s considered the greatest tactical military maneuver ever, and the biggest defeat the Romans ever faced. I asked Dr. Rugg to explain why he calls this event the biggest “oh-shit” moment in history, and why it’s such a major touchstone in our book.

Dr. Rugg?

Cannae and the candle

The Victorian physicist Michael Faraday famously used an ordinary candle to demonstrate some of the key principles of chemistry and physics. It was a brilliant example because of its simplicity and purity. A single candle was all he needed to demonstrate those key principles, and to demonstrate how those key principles were reflected in everyday life.

Cannae does for human error what the candle did for chemistry and physics. It illustrates a key point with elegant simplicity. Cannae is one of the few battles that unfolded exactly as one commander intended. With most battles, there are key points where a single chance event could have changed the outcome. That wasn’t the case at Cannae. What happened on that day in 216 BC was as inevitable and inescapable as the events in a Greek tragedy.

And, like a Greek tragedy, Cannae was inexorable, brutal and bloody in its outcome. It was a devastating demonstration of how one common human error can lead to tens of thousands of deaths. That’s how many Romans were killed in a single day at Cannae.

The Roman commander saw events unfolding just the way he expected, with his large army pushing back the battle line of Hannibal’s much smaller army into a deep arc. That was the shape of a battle line that was just about to break, which is what the Romans wanted; a broken battle line could then be mopped up in detail.

What the Roman commander hadn’t spotted was that the shape of the two armies was also the shape of one army surrounded on three sides by the other army.

The Romans realised their mistake when Hannibal’s cavalry slammed into the back of the Roman line, closing the trap. Some Romans managed to fight their way out while the trap was closing. After the trap had closed, the rest were slaughtered to the last man.

The Roman commander’s error is known as confirmation bias. You see the evidence that fits with what you want to see; you don’t see that the same evidence also fits equally well with a completely different explanation.

I care about confirmation bias because it’s one of the commonest mistakes in research. It’s at the heart of the widespread popular misconception that scientists set out to prove that their theories are right. Trying to prove that your theory is right is a really stupid idea. You can’t be right all the time. Nobody is. Experts actually make more mistakes than novices, because the experts are testing out possible explanations all the time. That’s how the fictional medic Dr. Gregory House works. Nobody remembers the half-dozen possible diagnoses that he tries and abandons before he finds the correct diagnosis that everybody does remember. That’s how good science operates. You test ideas, and see which ones are the best fit for what you’re seeing. It’s about how well the different possibilities match the evidence, not about how good you are at guessing.

A common pattern in bad research is that the researcher starts off with a pet theory, then does a study that turns up evidence that’s consistent with their pet theory, and decides that this is evidence of their theory being right. This one simple type of mistake has squandered huge amounts of time, effort and money, and has led to untold needless human tragedy. It doesn’t just affect the studies themselves. Some bad studies manage to become orthodoxy, leading to wasted opportunities, and making later researchers spend years unpicking the mess before they can start rebuilding on sound foundations.

At Cannae, Hannibal defeated the Romans by using their confirmation bias against them. The number of Romans killed in that one battle was far greater than the number of dead at Gettysburg, or any other battle in the American Civil War; it was greater than the number of American dead in the entire Vietnam War. Sixty thousand dead, in one day.

But that’s probably just a drop in the ocean compared to the number of unnecessary deaths caused by the right answers being missed through confirmation bias, not just by researchers, but by anyone who looks at the evidence before making a decision, and sees only the shape that they want to see in that evidence.

That’s why Cannae was such an important story within Blind Spot. That’s why we’re testing different ways of showing evidence and looking at evidence, in the hope that some of those ways might prevent at least some deaths or loss or suffering. As the examples in Blind Spot show, it’s a realistic possibility. Researchers such as Gerd Gigerenzer have already saved lives by helping emergency doctors to avoid faulty judgments in the emergency wards. There’s real hope, and that’s worth a lot.

Image: Wikipedia

"My" new book BLIND SPOT pubbing tomorrow!

"My" new book BLIND SPOT pubbing tomorrow!   With all the excitement around here, I’d nearly forgotten that one of my co-writing book projects is pubbing tomorrow.   Blind Spot,  which is being published by the HarperCollins imprint, HarperOne, is a book I co-wrote with the British scientist Gordon Rugg, whom I profiled in  Wired  magazine back in 2004.  For lack of a better expression, Rugg is an “expert on human expertise.” He studies how human beings can acquire profound knowledge yet still manage to screw up. Rugg first garnered international media attention a few years back when he asserted that the freaky  Voynich Manuscript —a bizarre book preserved at Yale University—was in fact a hoax.  He claims that the scholars who’ve studied that book for the last 100 years failed to “decode” or “translate” the book because they simply made a mistake—because that’s what experts do. (I should say that his “solution” is still hotly debated.)   Blind Spot  uses Rugg’s Voynich findings as a jumping-off point for discussing other types of expert errors. The book is what publishers call a “big think” or “Gladwellian” book, and it was certainly interesting to work on. Just a week or so ago, Rugg revealed another twist on his Voynich work at the online ‘zine,   Tablet   .  I just noticed that  The Millions  also linked to that article.   People sometimes ask how I work these co-writing projects. The truth is, every one is different. In this case, Rugg was kind to let me share a byline on the cover, but since the book’s content is 100 percent out of Rugg’s brain, he will do the bulk of the media interviews and outreach.  Here’s the publisher’s pitch for  Blind Spot :   “ What can chess masters teach us about how humans become experts?  Why can’t race car drivers explain decisions they’ve made behind the wheel?  What does predicting the winner of a soccer match say about our ability to make the right choice?  When we talk about experts, we typically have bought into the idea that they have all the answers. Now, in this groundbreaking book, Gordon Rugg exposes the surprising ways in which all people tend to make the same sorts of mistakes, regardless of what field they are in, how smart they are, or even their level of expertise. Focusing on why and how we make decisions, Rugg offers insight into what motivates us, how we fail to find the answers we are looking for, how we can learn to ask the essential questions, and more.  Rugg has devoted his life to learning how experts solve problems. He gained international attention after arguing persuasively that the famous Voynich Manuscript is a hoax. Now, he demonstrates his techniques in the Verifier Method, which can be applied to any seemingly unsolvable problem.  Drawing on his personal odyssey in the field of human expertise, Rugg makes astute and entertaining conclusions about how and why we inevitably fail, and explains how to make better mistakes, work backward, and reengineer the ways we pursue success.”  If the premise intrigues you, check out the links below:  Available:   Amazon (US)    Amazon (UK)    B&N    Indiebound    Powell’s    Books-A-Million    HarperCollins    iPad

"My" new book BLIND SPOT pubbing tomorrow!

With all the excitement around here, I’d nearly forgotten that one of my co-writing book projects is pubbing tomorrow.

Blind Spot, which is being published by the HarperCollins imprint, HarperOne, is a book I co-wrote with the British scientist Gordon Rugg, whom I profiled in Wired magazine back in 2004.

For lack of a better expression, Rugg is an “expert on human expertise.” He studies how human beings can acquire profound knowledge yet still manage to screw up. Rugg first garnered international media attention a few years back when he asserted that the freaky Voynich Manuscript—a bizarre book preserved at Yale University—was in fact a hoax.

He claims that the scholars who’ve studied that book for the last 100 years failed to “decode” or “translate” the book because they simply made a mistake—because that’s what experts do. (I should say that his “solution” is still hotly debated.)

Blind Spot uses Rugg’s Voynich findings as a jumping-off point for discussing other types of expert errors. The book is what publishers call a “big think” or “Gladwellian” book, and it was certainly interesting to work on. Just a week or so ago, Rugg revealed another twist on his Voynich work at the online ‘zine, Tablet. I just noticed thatThe Millions also linked to that article.

People sometimes ask how I work these co-writing projects. The truth is, every one is different. In this case, Rugg was kind to let me share a byline on the cover, but since the book’s content is 100 percent out of Rugg’s brain, he will do the bulk of the media interviews and outreach.

Here’s the publisher’s pitch for Blind Spot:

What can chess masters teach us about how humans become experts?

Why can’t race car drivers explain decisions they’ve made behind the wheel?

What does predicting the winner of a soccer match say about our ability to make the right choice?

When we talk about experts, we typically have bought into the idea that they have all the answers. Now, in this groundbreaking book, Gordon Rugg exposes the surprising ways in which all people tend to make the same sorts of mistakes, regardless of what field they are in, how smart they are, or even their level of expertise. Focusing on why and how we make decisions, Rugg offers insight into what motivates us, how we fail to find the answers we are looking for, how we can learn to ask the essential questions, and more.

Rugg has devoted his life to learning how experts solve problems. He gained international attention after arguing persuasively that the famous Voynich Manuscript is a hoax. Now, he demonstrates his techniques in the Verifier Method, which can be applied to any seemingly unsolvable problem.

Drawing on his personal odyssey in the field of human expertise, Rugg makes astute and entertaining conclusions about how and why we inevitably fail, and explains how to make better mistakes, work backward, and reengineer the ways we pursue success.”

If the premise intrigues you, check out the links below:

Available:

Amazon (US)

Amazon (UK)

B&N

Indiebound

Powell’s

Books-A-Million

HarperCollins

iPad

Cover Reveal: Blind Spot!

I’m always explaining to people that I write my own books for personal satisfaction/gain/pleasure, but my day job is ghost-writing books for other people. Most of the time, the “authors” of these books ask me not to reveal that I’ve written them and this is enforced by our collaboration agreement. (The degree to which I write these books varies greatly; more on that process one of these days.) Here’s one of the books where I’ll actually be getting a “with” line.

HarperOne, a division of HarperCollins will release BLIND SPOT, a nonfiction science book co-authored by myself and UK senior lecturer Gordon Rugg in April 2013. The publisher has yet to release the product description, but basically: science. 

Rugg, by the way, is your basic code-breaker, computer scientist, and supergenius. Almost a decade ago, I profiled him for a WIRED magazine article about his then-new theories about the mysterious Voynich Manuscript—a bizarre medieval-seeming book that appears to have been written in an unbreakable secret code or unknown language. Check out high-res images of that freaky book here.

I later revised that article and presented the new version as the title piece in my nonfiction indie book, The Scientist and the Sociopath. (bottom)

The publishers have released this (top) version of the upcoming book, which is now up for preorder on Amazon and other sites. I used to proudly say ta-da! with each new cover, but I’ve since learned that covers can change on a dime. Could happen here, too.

Dr. Gordon Rugg interviewed in CNBC

My friend and colleague, the scientist Gordon Rugg, gets a plug in CNBC Magazine this month for his work on data analysis. The article highlights Rugg’s Search Visualizer software, which gives people a picture of whatever they’re searching for online.

Rugg is the “titular” scientist in my ebook, The Scientist & the Sociopath. That nonfiction book includes the story I wrote about his work, which appeared in Wired Magazine. That article was based on Rugg’s investigations into the Voynich Manuscript—a bizarre book that is written in an apparently unknown language or code. (See the video above.)

Rugg and I are coauthoring a book about his scientific methods, entitled BLIND SPOT, which HarperOne will release next year. I’ll post a cover here as soon as it’s released.