The Golden Record: Sound and Image to Synthesize All Humanity
In 1977, the Voyager 1 probe departed from Earth to explore the Solar System. On board was a disc with sounds and images then thought to best describe the essence of the human race and the planet (should the disc be found by extraterrestrial life).
If humanity were to present itself to another species in the Universe, how might we do it? One could explain humanity’s scientific discoveries, and technologies, the history of art and architecture, humanity’s capacity to feel and to love. One might also tell the story of great wars, of our capacity for destruction and violence, or of the ways we’ve mistreated the planet we call home. Perhaps we might best describe humanity through something as ephemeral and universal as sound, or as overwhelmingly sensory as images. At least, that was the premise of those who put the Golden Record – a collection of sounds and images of Earth and the Earth’s inhabitants – aboard the space probe, Voyager 1, before it left the planet on September 5, 1977.
The original mission of this unlikely artifact was to explore the outer Solar System. The craft has been doing just that for four decades. During all of that time, it captured the first flyby photographs of Jupiter and Saturn, as well as of their satellites and rings. Today, of all the objects ever made by human hands, the Voyager 1 has traveled the farthest from the Earth. In August 2012, Voyager 1 crossed the last limits of the planetary system, to enter interstellar space, moving towards the center of the Milky Way. Still on board the probe is the Golden Record, a time capsule floating through space in the hope that someone will find it (and be able to decipher it).
The object is itself a jewel. A gold-plated copper record, it contains an encrypted selection, in binary code, of sounds and images of the Earth and its inhabitants. The contents of the album were chosen, in those years, by a committee headed by Carl Sagan. A titanic work, it took almost a year to compile and resulted in 117 images. These include mathematical diagrams that explain human quantities and measurements, schemes of the Solar System and its planets, graphics of human DNA, reproduction, and anatomy, as well as photographs of the daily life of human cultures, animals, plants, landscapes, insects, food, and architecture. Some of the images have careful annotations that indicate their scale or size (based on other original measurements), the chemical composition of some objects and their masses.
The Golden Record also includes an extensive sound collection, from the sounds of waves, a volcano erupting, wind, lightning and some animals (like birds and whales), to recordings of laughter (Sagan’s), the sounds of footsteps and the sound of a kiss. There are greetings in 55 languages and musical pieces from around the world. Among them are Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and folk music from a variety of cultures. The inclusion of the Johnny B. Goode theme by Chuck Berry was debated when some council members argued that rock and roll was teenage music. To this Sagan responded, “There are a lot of adolescents in the planet.” The astronomer also proposed the inclusion of the song, Here Comes the Sun, by The Beatles, but the record company was opposed, incredibly, for copyright issues.
Like an audio “cabinet of curiosities” floating through space even today, the Golden Record also contains a recording of the brain waves of a woman. (During the exercise, she was asked to think of things like the history of the Earth, human civilizations and the problems they face and how love feels.) The record also includes the Latin phrase Per aspera ad astra or “Through hardships to the stars,” written in Morse code.
In February of 2017, just a few months ago, Voyager 1 was 38 light-hours, 14 minutes from Earth, and traveling at 17 km per second toward the center of our galaxy. We know that while it will never return to the inner Solar System, its thermoelectric power generators will allow it to be in contact with the Earth, at least, until 2025. The possibility of the Voyager 1 being found by another inhabitant of the Universe and, moreover, by one with the technology and ability to understand its message is undoubtedly very remote. But this message in a bottle, a self-portrait of humanity, has crossed the immensity of the cosmos. It’s still moving, and it forces us to do an exercise in perspective and humility to understand our own size, to see ourselves as a species, at once perhaps a negative thought, but also, at our most luminous.
You can see the full contents of the Golden Record on the NASA webpage.
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