Playing For Keeps
When NASA launched a golden record that will last a billion years into the cosmos…
…it was really a love note in disguise.
SOMEWHERE AROUND THE TIMESTAMP 20:51, just after the sounds of a rocket liftoff and a mother soothing a crying baby, you’d hear about a minute’s worth of “rggggghrgggh popop popPOP whirr—swish rgghhhhh.” It sounds a bit like a string of firecrackers going off down the street, but what you’d be hearing is the sound of love. Real, actual love. The sound you—your actual brain cells—make when you experience something so amazingly inescapable and profound you immortalize it on a Golden Record and hurtle it across the cosmos at 40,000 mph just for some alien species to share the feeling.
That weird little soundbite is brain waves recorded during an EEG of Ann Druyan—the Creative Director of the Golden Record project—who had just proposed to the famed astronomer Carl Sagan two days before the recording in what she later described asa pure eureka moment during their work together.
It sounds a bit like a string of firecrackers going off down the street.
That lovely (call it accidental) recording of Ann’s innermost feelings, placed neatly at the end of an audio essay of Earth’s history, might be the first thing aliens understand of us. The recording is a killer mix of surf, rain, mud bubbles, frogs, birds, dogs, humans, humans with dogs (aliens probably love dogs too), tools, morse code, pulsars, planes, trains, automobiles and loads of other noises on Earth. But the abstract popping sound of Ann’s brain on love has to be the most profound thing ever launched into space by humans. Sorry, Hubble.
And that’s really what the Voyager mission is for us, for all of us: a profound love note to whoever else might be out there in a neighboring galaxy. Our “message in a bottle tossed to the void in the sky,” as Linda Salsman Sagan put it. And we bet you’ve passed a love note to a crush once—having no idea what to say or how to be cool or if it would even land in the right hands, but fired it off with your secrets, silly scribbles and desires within it all the same. That’s exactly what Frank Drake (founder of SETI), Carl Sagan (of Cosmos fame), Ann Druyan, TimothyFerris, and Jon Lomberg envisioned when they set to compile their interstellar postcard which would launch with theVoyager 1 and 2 probes in 1977.
WHAT’S ON THE RECORD?
The record, conceptualized and produced in less than two months, is a collective glance at what we humans have been up to here on Earth for the short while we’ve been around—and it packs a punch of humanity for being the ultimate rush job. The Voyager Interstellar Record was, after all, a $25,000 side project of a sub-mission within the true scientific reconnaissance mission of Voyager to observe the outer planets of our solar system. But Carl knew the opportunity to marry art and science, the small attempt to cast our desire for not being alone in the universe, couldn’t happen any better way and seized the once-every-176-year moment, and the spotlight, beautifully with the Golden Record.
The 2-sided gilded phonograph record, recorded and played at half speed for extra data storage, contains 115 specially-encoded images, greetings in 55 languages (including the above: young Nick Sagan’s greeting from all of us kids), that catchy audio essay of Earth’s history, almost 90 minutes of music from across many civilizations—including ”Johnny Be Goode,” a few Bach symphonies, and a piece of Chinese music that’s much older than America itself. There’s even a brief note from Jimmy Carter and the then UN Secretary-General Waldheim, because aliens care about late-seventies geo-politics maybe?
The sheer scale of the undertaking is enough to overwhelm anybody, and that’s without thinking about the barrage of bureaucratic nonsense and press inquiries the team was fielding in real-time. But they pushed through to see the records successfully launched. Realizing such a mission of extreme optimism by looking so positively at humankind despite all our flaws, and having such enthusiasm for the future, they encapsulated a brief snapshot of the best of us, etched it into a record with a shelf life of a billion years and sent it off humming along some 13 billion miles away into interstellar space.