TECHSPLOITATION As annoying as hippies can be, it’s strangely comforting to think that the one bit of junk we shot into deep space is emblazoned with a hippie symbol. I’m talking about the golden records screwed onto the shells of Voyagers I and II, two space probes that completely changed our understanding of the solar system and then shot out into deep space bearing record albums intended for alien consumption.
Last week marked the 30th anniversary of the Voyager II launch. While most people recall the Voyager probes for creating close-up photographs and atmospheric readings from Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, these probes were always intended to do more than send messages back home for human consumption. In the mid-1970s, when the Voyager spacecraft were being completed, pop cosmologist Carl Sagan convinced NASA to include a message from Earth on the probes. They were to bring news of us to alien beings in the unknowable reaches of the galaxy and beyond.
In consultation with a bunch of other geeks (including Timothy Ferris, who produced the album), Sagan decided that the delivery mechanism for this message should be a golden record, packaged with a cartridge and needle, as well as abstract mathematical instructions for how fast to spin the disc and at what frequencies it would emit sound. You can listen to the entire recording at goldenrecord.org, and the experience is bittersweet, an auditory glimpse of a very different time in human history.
The tracks include greetings in dozens of languages, including ancient Sumerian, which of course nobody knows how to pronounce anymore. And Gaia help us, there is also a "whale greeting." There is a track devoted to "Earth sounds," all which sound totally cool while remaining unrecognizable as particularly Earthly. There are over a dozen music recordings from around the world, all of which are written (and mostly performed) by men. Most are from the West, with a few Russian numbers thrown in probably for "diversity." Bach is presented alongside Chuck Berry, Navaho chants beside Beethoven. It’s a Sesame Street notion of pluralism, with an emphasis on music and greetings rather than political speeches or academic treatises on economics.
Also included on these records are directions to Earth, using nearby stars as navigation points.
The golden records imply that music, math and images are universal symbolic systems, the best kind for communicating with beings radically different from ourselves. This is an idea that was popular in the 1970s Steven Spielberg immortalized it in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which humans meeting aliens establish communication via electronic sounds. But as American historian Karen Ordahl Kupperman has pointed out, the idea that music (and the math underlying it) is a universal form of communication also comes from centuries-old encounters between Europeans and natives in the Americas. Early European explorers recount communicating with natives via music upon first meeting and reaching an understanding on that basis.
Music may be a near-universal form of communication among humans, and there is something glorious and touching about trying to share that with other creatures in space. Of course, the notion that aliens might share the idea of "hearing" with us profoundly silly. What if these are creatures who communicate via molecular manipulation, or chemical signatures? What if they live in vacuum, and therefore cannot "hear" at all?
So yeah, the golden record is species-centric. It’s also naively specific to one culture, for who can think of a golden record full of Western music as anything but the work of hippie liberal white dudes? Still, I’d rather be represented by its naive utopianism than by most of the signals shooting off this planet.
No doubt the golden record will bemuse any alien life that actually bothers to examine the goo on a piece of space junk. But a bemused alien may in fact be the one who comes closest to guessing the true meaning of the golden record, and perhaps the true meaning of human life itself. And so it seems fitting that our one letter to the universe reads something like this: Wish you were here. We have no idea what we’re doing, but we sound good!
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who thinks that perhaps the golden record is really a message to ourselves.