Humanity's Gold(en) Record

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When I read news items like the recent announcement, and subsequent disavowal, of a discovery of signs of extraterrestrial life, I tend to wonder: What would a sentient race of beings from another world think of us humans and our myriad faults, foibles, and idiosyncrasies?

It’s not a very original question, of course. Pop scientists, sci fi geeks, and any suburban kid who’s looked at the nighttime sky through a telescope lens have all asked the question at one time or another. How you answer seems to depend on what you think of humanity itself. The most common answer to this question–given by cynics from Hollywood and the scientific community–is they wouldn’t think much of us at all. Alien races would find us–despite our penchant for creating beauty in art, literature, architecture, music and so on–petty, out of touch, violent, and unworthy of living. In this view, aliens would seek to destroy us, enslave us, or exploit us and our planet. So widespread is this idea, even genius physicist Stephen Hawking believes it. “If aliens ever visit us,” said Hawking last year, “I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

At the same time, others view the potential eventual meet up between aliens and humans as a less dangerous event. These other, more optimistic humans have long been active seekers of aliens. In fact, it’s been more than 30 years that the famous astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan made it fashionable to reach outward to other worlds. In 1974, Sagan helped write an Atari-like radio message–called the Arecibo Message (see image below)–that was beamed into space to inform extraterrestrials about Earth. In 1982, he was influential in the founding of a quasi-government project (or, more accurately, a collective group of projects), called SETI, whose mission was to look for extraterrestrial intelligence. And, thanks to one other major effort, it is to Sagan and his cohorts that we owe the current best hope for an human interplanetary image revival.

In 1977, Sagan led the effort to create a cultural artifact that may have the most lasting and potentially wide-ranging influence on how creatures from other worlds might someday see us. Called the Golden Records, they were two phonograph records made of gold-plated copper encased in aluminum and included on each of the two Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. The records, which were intended for viewing by any sentient extraterrestrial life forms that might come across them, are collections of sounds and images that portray the diversity and beauty of life and culture on our often underrated and underappreciated planet. The Golden Record collection was selected by a committee chaired by Sagan and is comprised of a variety of natural sounds, such as a tame dog barking, a tractor plowing a field, a bus starting up, and a chimpanzee’s call. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras–including gamelon music from Java, Bach’s Brandenburg concerto, Peruvian wedding music, a blues number by Blind Willie Johnson, a Navajo night chant, and Chuck Berry performing “Johnny B. Goode”–as well as spoken greetings in fifty-five languages. Meanwhile, among the 116 photographs and diagrams included with the Record are photos of jet airplanes taking off, an astronaut in a space walk, people eating and performing everyday activities, diagrams of the five atoms that make up DNA, other chemical formulas, and various maps and diagrams of Earth. The diverse images are encoded in analogue form and composed of 512 vertical lines. The audio portion of the record is designed to be played at 16? revolutions per minute. A stylus for playing the records is included on the spacecraft, and a diagram showing the proper working of the stylus and record is etched on the record cover.

And why are the Golden Records important to take note of now, more than thirty years after their creation and launch,just as we may, or may not, have found meteoric signs of extraterrestrial life? Well, it is only now, in 2011, that the Golden Records, and their Voyager spacecraft, have finally broken free of their human influence and moved one step closer to unknown worlds. That is, this past winter, Voyager 1 traveled through a barrier marking the official edge of the solar system, where there is no longer any outward motion of the sun’s solar winds. In December, the craft was 10.8 billion miles from Earth (Voyager 2, due to its different trajectory and speed, lags behind at about 8.8 billion miles from Earth, or so you can learn from its tweets), and so beginning its outward journey through the heliosheath and into the beyond. “The solar wind has turned the corner,” Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, said recently. “Voyager 1 is getting close to interstellar space.”Voyager 1 is expected to cross through the heliosheath and into the unknown reaches beyond our solar system in 2015. The Voyager crafts are small, each weighing less than a ton, and space is immeasurably vast. Voyager 1 won’t move into proximity to any sort of star system for 40,000 years, and even then it will pass only within 1.6 light years of a star in the Ophiuchus constellation. But this doesn’t diminish how important an artifact of human culture are the Golden Records. As Carl Sagan himself said about the launch of Voyager, “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

What the Golden Records say is, despite our stupidity and violence, despite our inability to overcome our differences for the greater good, we can still create great beauty and we can document that beauty for others–even alien others. Or, as Jimmy Carter put it much more eloquently in his official message included with the launches, the Golden Record is “a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” 

Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications. Read his previous posts here.

Both images are licensed under Creative Commons.

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