Illuminating the Illuminated: Uncovering Patterns in Indecipherable Books

The evenings draw in, the candles flicker, the leaves wither and fall.
Ancient fears and dark rumours gather around our darkly dreaming spires.
The anodyne veneer of modern rationality, the brittle lens of our sciences; both falter in the face of primal fears that emerge with the night.

At this time of year, when our resolve against the unknown is at its weakest, we are challenged as scientists to defend and deploy our ideals, our methods, our tools. As Halloween descends we brace ourselves against the umbral tide, and struggle to draw understanding from the darkness around us.

Folklore, legends, myth. Hauntings, strange creatures in the mist, and mysterious lights in the sky. From the earliest terrified reports to modern digital documentation, data describing arcane phenomena has grown and shifted, just as has our capacity, and our stumbling willingness, to interrogate their secrets.

To celebrate the season, you are invited to the annual OII Halloween Lecture.

This year we will delve into the mysteries recorded in the leaves of half-forgotten texts discovered in strange circumstances. The Voynich manuscript is perhaps the most famous and well-documented cryptic tome as yet undeciphered. Written in an unknown alphabet, and filled with peculiar, unearthly diagrams, this 15th century folio has baffled linguists, cryptographers, and intelligence agencies for over three centuries.

In this lecture, we will examine some of the history surrounding the Voynich, and apply statistical tools to explore some of its characterics. A hoax? Or an unfathomable repository of ancient wisdom?

The lecture will be a light-hearted presentation of around thirty minutes, liberally doused with informal discussions on any related topics of interest. Following the talk, we will reconvene at a nearby pub for those brave, or foolhardy, paranormal social scientists who dare to glimpse beyond the murky veil of horrifying reality.

Dr Joss Wright is a Senior Research Fellow, Co-Director of the Oxford EPSRC Cybersecurity Doctoral Training Centre and a Co-Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade. His work focuses on computational approaches to social science questions, with a particular focus on technologies that exert, resist, or subvert control over information.
Joss’ main areas of research are information controls, with a focus on internet censorship and shutdowns; privacy enhancing technologies and data anonymisation; and cybercrime, with a particular focus on the online illegal wildlife trade and its implications for biodiversity and conservation.

Joss gained his PhD in Computer Science at the University of York, where his work focused on the modelling and analysis of anonymous communication systems. Following this, he spent time at the University of Siegen in Germany, researching security and privacy issues in cloud computing. He joined the OII as a postdoctoral research fellow in 2010.