In 1977, NASA sent a pair of unmanned probes named Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 into space. Among the infrared spectrometers and radio receivers included on each probe were identical copies of the same non-scientific object: the Voyager Golden Record.

Sheathed in a protective aluminum jacket, the Record is a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images chosen to portray the diversity of life on Earth: bird calls, whale songs, the sounds of surf, wind, and thunder, music from human cultures, and some 55 greetings in a range of languages, alive and dead. Like lonely time capsules, the records, aboard their still-functioning hosts, have long since left our solar system. The official Voyager 2 Twitter reports that the probe is currently at 13 hrs 38 mins 08 secs of light-travel time from Earth, which makes it the farthest man-made object from Earth.

According to the unofficial mythology, the Voyager Golden Record was compiled by two people in love: the astronomer Carl Sagan, and Ann Druyan, the creative director of the project, who he would later marry. Druyan confided on WNYC’s Radio Lab program in 2007 that she recorded the sounds of her own body-the electrical impulses of her brain and nervous system, her heartbeats-for the album, which were the sounds of a woman swept away: by a man, by ideas, by the power of sending their love out into eternity, her human pulse synched to the hollow ebbing of a pulsar. Love, golden, close to eternal, flying at impossible speeds through the heavens.

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The Golden Record’s panoply of information, including those 55 greetings, was intended for an unknowable audience of spacefaring extraterrestrials. Some are personal, like the Swedish greeting: “Greetings from a computer programmer in the little university town of Ithaca on the planet Earth.” Others are chatty, almost unserious: somewhat preposterously, one, in Amoy, asks if the aliens are hungry. These recordings ostensibly represent a united voice of mankind addressing the cosmos. Of course, however, each greeting is a world of its own, embodying its own set of cultural and historical attitudes about life in space, time, infinity, and consciousness. The phrasing shifts from one recording to the next, revealing dramatic shifts in perspective. While the Arabic speaker calls extraterrestrials “friends in the stars,” the Zulu and Sotho recordings address “great ones.” What space is, what it represents, is not a consistent variable.

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And neither, of course, are we.

As a species, the messages we’ve sent into space are piecemeal. For every concerted effort towards reasoned transmission, millions upon millions of radio-hours of information have leaked out into space from our planet haphazardly, beginning with that famous Nazi Olympic broadcast in 1936. Which, as it turns out, may be a better way for an extraterrestrial species to know us.

We’re warring, inconsistent. We love, and embarrass ourselves. We create technologies seemingly at random, often beyond our ability to understand, let alone legislate. We live in bodies eminently susceptible to the slightest intrusion. Only a few of us are even fleetingly concerned with the impression we might make on our alien brethren. And yet, flawed, we are, our whole tumultuous history an opaque question mark in the darkness.

Reaching out by virtue of our idle transmissions, waiting.

The Record is a present we gave to ourselves, or rather that Sagan and Druyan gave to the rest of us, an object that delivers the entire emotive impact of the human race in a polished package. According to the Golden Record, we’re groovy. We don’t murder each other over inconsequential abstractions, or defile our planet for material gain. We’re friendly, sending warm “hellos” out into the Universe, playing Bach, playing Chuck Berry to our new friends. It’s freshman year of college, a cocktail party exaggeration: an invention designed to impress. But impress who?

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It’s likely an extraterrestrial intelligence would take the Voyager Golden Record for a piece of space garbage; the obsolescence of records aside, we can hardly assume its alien discoverers would have ears, let alone understand sound waves as information, or carved etchings as meaning. I’m not the first to posit that the Voyager Golden Record, with all its naive bombast, was more an exercise in summing ourselves up to ourselves than it was a pragmatic solution for first contact. Carl Sagan himself called it a “symbolic statement rather than a serious attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial life.” In compiling the Record, its creators ran a comb over the tangle of ideas, languages, and cultures that make up the human race and parsed it into something cohesive, simple-even neat.

Is it beautiful? Beyond expression. Does it represent the human race and its position in the cosmos? No, of course not. No single such compendium could. Our reality is utterly subjective, our languages merely sandcastles held together by history and mutual consent. When NASA welded plaques depicting a man and a woman onto the Pioneer probes in 1972, conservatives in the United States objected to the nudity in the now-iconic image. We deny and contest our own bodies, the intrinsic animal nature of our personhood. Can we know what we are?

Personally, I’m an animal, but also a space zealot; I believe that a proper understanding of our place in regards to the universe is an elusive, but ultimately transcendent, tool. A clearer sense of our position (simultaneously precious and irrelevant) may be the most powerful aftereffect of the space programs of the late 20th century. Simply the image of the planet in perspective, a marble in the void-or, to quote Sagan again, a “mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam“-has altered global culture in ways we’ve yet to accurately measure.

The writer Frank White, whose essays on the subject of cosmic scale should be canonical, refers to a shift in perspective called the “Overview Effect.” White’s estimation, supported by accounts from those in the unique position of having seen the Earth from space, is that such an overview has a penetrating, complex effect. It triggers a singular insight: sudden awareness of life’s interconnectedness and the frailty of our planet.

For those of us on the ground, gazing up into space can be a mutable experience. To some, it’s a horror of the Lovecraftian variety: a deep abyss, out of which some undefinable and eldritch ancientness threateningly emanates. To others, the blackness of space represents a kind of anattā, direct evidence of the non-self. While the former escape to light-polluted urban centers and live their lives in denial of the vast beyond, the latter meditate under the stars. And yet all of us, no matter our impulses, are at least dimly aware of the significance of our planetary position: we hang suspended in an incomprehensible void.

In my interview with Frank White, he pointed out:

“I find it somewhat puzzling that when we talk about problems on Earth, such as the so-called ‘population problem,’ we never include the dimension of our larger environment, i.e., the solar system and beyond. And when we talk about the ‘energy problem,’ only a few people are willing to even consider the promise of satellites that could beam solar energy to the Earth. We discuss almost every major human problem as if we were confined to one planet, rather than being on ‘Spaceship Earth,’ which is a part of the solar system, galaxy, and universe.”

I made the above video, Greetings from the People of Earth, to be screened at a panel discussion about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) at the World Science Festival in New York. Aside from serving to remind the audience that American space bureaucracy had once produced an act of remarkably poetic thinking, it was intended to show that the frail human voices strapped to a spaceship aboard the Voyager Golden Record had originated on a spaceship, too: the Earth.

Dr. Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute, who spoke on the World Science Festival panel, often compares the scope of her organization’s research to date as being merely one tablespoon of water from the sea. No one would pronounce the ocean devoid of life after inspecting such a small portion; if anything, the ratio inspires hope. My collection of voices from the Voyager Golden Record, juxtaposed with the night skies above their respective nations, is similar: a spoonful of life in the infinite vastness of space. There’s still so much left to explore, and one day-perhaps tomorrow, perhaps hundreds of years from now-we might discover a flicker of life, as silvery and pure as a darting fish, in a nearby puddle of the cosmos.

Comments

  1. #1 Kausik Datta
    March 2, 2012

    This is a beautifully written piece, informative as well as introspective. Thank you.

    There is one very minor quibble: you have written “… anattā – direct evidence of non-self”. If I am reading this correctly, this word (“anattā”) is Sanskrit word; it was used in association with a description of space in the writings of ādi (“The First”) Shankaracharya (Śaṅkarācārya), a 9th centure CE Hindu philosopher. The word is spelt as “anatma” – with the diacritical marks, it is “anātmā”, a concatenated expression that means the ‘Non Self’.

  2. #2 luzmejor
    March 5, 2012

    Carl Sagan and his wife are a gift that keeps on giving. The writer of this beautiful and reverent story is a poet of prose.
    My thanks for helping me to feel better about the entire human condition. My prayers and thanks go out to SETI researchers. Long may you all live!

  3. #3 Claire Evans
    March 26, 2012

    @Kausik Datta, thanks for the note. I was using the Pāli spelling instead of the Sanskrit, because I was under the impression that was the more common usage, but then again I’m a total neophyte. In any case, the idea is the same.

  4. #4 Melissa James
    March 28, 2012

    Claire: Thank you for this well thought out, timely article. You expressed everything I wanted to say, but couldn’t. Instead, I just joked about it on my blog. But thank you for the facts, thoughts, and resources in this article. :)

    http://yellowwoodtraveler.wordpress.com/2012/03/27/who-got-to-choose-the-golden-record-for-the-aliens/