Derek Abbott

Ep 152: The Voynich Manuscript Part 2

Undated photograph of Wilfrid Voynich, about 48 years old, by F. Hollyer. From the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Digital Collection.


We all want to know what the Voynich means, but most would-be interpreters begin with their own preconceptions, and their attempts to demystify the medieval past only serve to mystify it further, making the Voynich into a telling avatar of our vexed relationship with the past.

Paraphrased from an August 14, 2019 Washington Post Article entitled “Why do people keep convincing themselves they’ve solved this medieval mystery?” by Lisa Fagin Davis, Executive Director of the Medieval Academy of America



Since its modern discovery, no other medieval manuscript has seen as much media attention or scholarly scrutiny as the Voynich Manuscript. No doubt this is due to the fantastical strangeness of its mystery, which is also the same reason it continually captures the imagination of the public. Because it would seem, the bigger the mystery, the bigger the reward for its solving. Like with any enduring enigma, the manuscript has attracted its share of sleuths who have claimed they've been the ones to at least gain an insight into a solution. Their confidence may be due to another mystical property of the manuscript. If one looks hard enough for evidence to make their preconceived hypothesis work, they will find some within its pages. However, why such interest and debate over this old book? Other than as a specimen of 600-year-old "folk art," what is the worth of a book no one can read? Because the Voynich Manuscript still holds the promise of revealing secret knowledge that could help humanity, and it has always been extremely satisfying to discover that which has been lost.



Villa Mondragone in an area called, from its many castles and villas, Castelli Romani about 12 miles (20 km) southeast of Rome, near the ancient town of Tusculum, where rare book and antiques dealer Wilfrid Voynich purchased the mysterious manuscript named after him, from a trunk reportedly once belonging to Athanasius Kircher.


Reference Links:


Related Books:

The Voynich Manuscript
Yale University Press
Codex Seraphinianus
By Luigi Serafini

Fire Protection specialist Greg Schmitz dispels some myths about Halon fire suppression:

Hi guys, 

Love the show! I was listening to your most recent episode about the Voynich Manuscript when I heard a couple common myths repeated regarding fire suppression systems. I’m a senior fire protection technician for a Los Angeles based company with 12 years experience, and a lot of people have similar misconceptions about fire suppression systems. 

I’m glad that the library has a clean agent system installed to protect these priceless artifacts, but there’s no need to worry about life safety issues from these systems. They are expertly designed, have an excellent safety record, and when maintained properly, are there to protect property while also being safe for humans working in the area. 

Myth #1: Halon 1301 is toxic. 

While CO2 systems are designed for normally unoccupied spaces and use an agent concentration of around 45% (10% is immediately dangerous to human life), halon 1301 (bromotrifluoromethane) systems use around 5% for class A fires (paper, cloth, wood, etc.). Halon 1301 is lethal at around an 83% concentration in pure form, and around 14% once exposed to flame, as it breaks down into hydrogen bromide, hydrogen fluoride, and free halogens. However, these are extremely irritating and will make you want to get away quickly. These stats reflect use on class B (liquids) test fires, though, a class A fire in the incipient stage from burning documents would produce much less thermal decomposition byproducts, as they are smoldering, smokey fires which would set off the smoke detection and activate the suppression system quickly. That’s if a conservationist or librarian didn’t use a portable extinguisher first, which would likely be distilled water mist (safe) or another clean agent which would have similar properties to 1301 but are slightly more toxic (very safe, no worse than 1301.) At any rate, it’s safe to breathe the percentage of agent discharged to extinguish fire for 4-5 minutes, which gives plenty of time to escape. CO2 would prove lethal under the same circumstances. Keep in mind that the U.S. armed forces and NASA have used 1301 for years in spaces that can’t be evacuated or ventilated, like spacecraft and armored fighting vehicles in combat. 

Inergen was also mentioned. Inergen is similar in application to halon 1301, but is an inert gas mixture of nitrogen, argon, and CO2 proprietary to Ansul. It doesn’t create thermal decomposition byproducts like 1301, and is safe to breathe for around 4-5 minutes at the design concentration of around 35-40%. It starts becoming dangerous at 62% so there is about a 20% safety margin. With either of these products, evacuating ASAP is ideal, as it would be during any fire event anyway. Having both of these systems installed concurrently covering the same area would be unusual, but given the nature of the hazard, theoretically possible with approval from the authority having jurisdiction (fire inspector). 

Myth #2: Halon 1301 removes or “sucks all the oxygen out of the room.”

Again, it’s being confused with CO2. CO2 displaces oxygen, effectively smothering the fire. Halon 1301 works by interrupting the chemical chain reaction required for fire to sustain itself and grow. (The bromine in the compound is responsible for both its high effectiveness on fire, as well as its negative impact on the ozone layer.) Inergen does work by smothering, but retains a higher safety margin than CO2 and can therefore be used in normally occupied spaces. 

Myth#3: Halon is used in kitchens. 

Nope, and never was. CO2 was used in kitchen suppression systems early on, as was dry chemical but these offer no fuel securement. Once the gas or powder cloud dissipates, the fire could restart if the fuel remains hot or an external ignition source remains. Halon would offer similar limitations. The systems designs are also different. Kitchen systems are local application only, they apply agent to a specified area, i.e. appliances, duct, and plenum, whereas halon 1301 systems are total flooding. These systems fill an entire room up to the specified design concentration and hold it for a specified time period. The room must be relatively gas tight to hold the agent concentration, which commercial kitchens are not. They are open floor plan with massive ventilation fans, not suited at all for holding extinguishing gas. Modern kitchens use water-based wet chemical, which discharges as a spray and works through cooling and saponification to extinguish grease fires and keep them out. It’s a non-toxic mixture of water and potassium salts. 

Thanks for listening to my rant and keep up the great work! 


Greg Schmitz 

Frontier Fire Protection


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Episode 152: The Voynich Manuscript Part 2.  Produced by Scott Philbrook & Forrest Burgess; Audio Editing by Sarah Vorhees Wendel; Sound Design by Ryan McCullough; Tess Pfeifle, Producer and Lead Researcher; Research Support from the astonishing League of Astonishing Researchers, a.k.a. The Astonishing Research Corps, or "A.R.C." for short. Copyright 2019 Astonishing Legends Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.