Recently I’ve been considering the commonalities between the foundations of computer science and the philosophy of language. As the world becomes more reliant on, and yet paradoxically more oblivious to, the exponential explosion of computing devices it seems pertinent to take some time to consider the foundations of the field. Computer programming languages are a highly constrained form of language, with a strict syntax and semantics, human languages are much messier, but the fields ofLinguistics and the Philosophy of Language attempt to untangle the mess.
Acrylic on canvas 914mm x 610mm
George Boole is the inventor of Boolean algebra, the foundation of modern computer languages, even though computers did not exist in the 19th Century when he did the work. His interests extended beyond mathematics, and his quote: “Language is an instrument of human reason, and not merely a medium for the expression of thought.” touches on some very deep questions on the relationship between thought and language..
So it was with great interest that I discovered that his daughter, Ethel Lilian, became the trustee of the infamous Voynich Manuscript, an ancient text written in an untranslatable script. One wonders what her father would have made of such a book, and hence this is the inspiration for this painting. George died many years before the Voynich’s acquired the manuscript, so we will never know what interpretation he would have offered.
Ethel Lilian Voynich
The Voynich manuscript itself appears to be some sort of alchemical notebook, and aside from the unintelligible text, it features many illustrations of plants which have no clear referents in the world, as well as what appear to be celestial charts and strange biological structures. Some have even suggested that some of the drawings are of microscopic cells, even though the manuscript predates the discovery of the microscope. Analysis of the statistical properties of the text shows that the word order corresponds to Zipfs Law which points to it being a ‘real’ encrypted text, rather than a random sequence of characters – and indeed, it’s difficult to believe that someone would be prepared to create such an elaborate document as a mere hoax. The author of the manuscript remains uncertain, though personally, I like the elegant explanation offered by H.R. SantaColoma that it is the notebook of Cornelius Drebbel.
The Voynich Manuscript
Below is a timelapse recording of the painting.