Our Human Legacy – The Golden Record on the Voyager Space Probes

In the summer of 1977, two space probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, were launched – their main mission being to study our solar system. Voyager 2 (launched 16 days before its twin) took a slightly longer course through our solar system, allowing it to fly by Neptune and Uranus- a feat not repeated by anything man made since.

Figure 1. Picture of Neptune- taken by Voyager 2 in 1989
Figure 1. Picture of Neptune- taken by Voyager 2 in 1989

Had the mission concluded with the exploration of these planets, we would still have learned enough to rewrite astronomy textbooks[1], but both probes have also been tasked with the mission of exploring the outer reaches of our solar system, and even explore what lies beyond.

 

The reason I decided to write an article on the Voyager probes is not related to the information we have gained since their launch, or their official mission – it is the information that we decided the Voyager probes should carry with them, in the unlikely case that they are found by intelligent life.

 

Both probes carry a golden record, on which loads of information describing us as human beings, our home planet, and our culture are encoded (the record is gold because gold is a very non- reactive element and this ensures that the records do not degrade over time, and that they can still be read if found). What I find particularly interesting is that this record, in essence, holds potentially the most important representation of life on this planet- if we consider the fact that its contents might one day be understood by a civilisation millions of light years away from us, long after life on earth along with the human race has perished. I find that thought quite striking; that everything we see around us, all of our friends and family, all of our knowledge, our history.. everything that composes our very being will one day cease to exist due to the unavoidable nature of.. well, nature! Our planet will not exist forever, neither will our sun, and looking at our inter-species conflicts here on earth one has to be very optimistic to claim that the human race will not wipe itself out before any of this happens. However, the one thing that will outlast everything I have just mentioned are the Voyager space probes, which will continue to peacefully drift through space until they are intercepted by a space faring civilisation. With all this in mind, this famous quote by Banksy applies not only to the individual; but to our entire human race.

Figure 2. Both sides of the Golden Record
Figure 2. Both sides of the Golden Record

I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time. – Banksy [2]

The golden records on both of the Voyager probes show our fear of ‘dying’- not only the fear that we will no longer exist, but the fear that all of the information comprising our collective human experience will dissipate into the vast darkness of the universe which we all came from, and thus be inaccessibly lost forever. It shows the hope which we have, as a collective, to survive in some form of or the other- even if this survival is in form of a scientific curiosity of beings millions of light years away, which are in no way connected to the earth, or human kind. If these records are found- someone, somewhere will know we, as a collective, existed and thus our legacy will live on in some way. These deep thoughts are echoed by Jimmy Carter’s official statement, also on board of both the probes:

We cast this message into the cosmos… Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some– perhaps many– may have inhabited planets and space faring civilisations. If one such civilisation intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message: This 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. We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilisations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe – Jimmy Carter [3]

Figure 3. former U.S president Jimmy Carter
Figure 3.
former U.S president Jimmy Carter

So, what has been included in this golden record, representing all of humanity, our thoughts, our hopes, our ambitions? I was relieved to find out that what has been sent, was selected by Carl Sagan and his associates- not politicians. The contents of the record includes a variety of natural sounds encountered on earth such as: animal and bird sounds, thunder, wind, as well as greetings spoken in 59 languages [4](the list of languages, and the story behind these being picked can be found here ).

 

Furthermore a collection of (traditional) music from around the world was picked, the list of which can be found here. What I find particularly interesting is that at the time of the rock n roll, disco and funk the blues song “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground” by Blind Willie Johnson was picked to represent U.S music. It was recorded in 1927 and it features no lyrics, just his unique slide- guitar and moaning/humming. This was appropriately chosen to represent the human emotions of loneliness and sadness[5]- emotions Blind Willie Johnson learned a lot about in his tragic life story. Music is something us humans are strongly connected to, and it is something which we use as a form of emotional expression. Since there is no way to explain emotions using images or anything like that- you can only feel them- the thinking behind much of the music choice is to convey the varied emotions we exhibit here on earth. Unfortunately the song “Here comes the Sun by the Beatles was not added because of EMI’s copyright concerns [6]- that, for some reason amuses me.

 

Interestingly, an hour long recording of human brain waves was recorded (which was then changed into sounds). These brain waves came from Ann Druyan- who has spoken about her experience and what thoughts she was having during the recording:

Earlier I had asked Carl if those putative extraterrestrials of a billion years from now could conceivably interpret the brain waves of a mediator. Who knows? A billion years is a long, long time, was his reply. On the chance that it might be possible why don’t we give it a try? Two days after our life-changing phone call, I entered a laboratory at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and was hooked up to a computer that turned all the data from my brain and heart into sound. I had a one-hour mental itinerary of the information I wished to convey. I began by thinking about the history of Earth and the life it sustains. To the best of my abilities I tried to think something of the history of ideas and human social organisation. I thought about the predicament that our civilisation finds itself in and about the violence and poverty that make this planet a hell for so many of its inhabitants. Toward the end I permitted myself a personal statement of what it was like to fall in love” – Ann Duryan[7]

Finally, a collection of images was also recorded on the record. These images show many various aspects of life here on earth; geographical features of earth, pictures of human anatomy, pictures of us eating, hunting, smoking, laughing. It shows people using scientific instruments to represent us learning and studying our habitat. It shows pictures of our solar system- an indicator that we are aware of our immediate stellar neighbourhood. Also, it features mathematical and physical definitions (our maths and science), as well as a map of our solar system and a picture of human DNA. The entire picture content of the golden record can be seen here.


Figure 4. Golden Record picture: examples of humans eating, licking and drinking as a means of nourishment
Figure 4. Golden Record picture: examples of humans eating, licking and drinking as a means of nourishment
Figure 5. Golden Record picture: Humans fishing with nets
Figure 5.
Golden Record picture: Humans fishing with nets
Figure 6. Golden Record picture: Physical units
Figure 6. Golden Record picture: Physical units

All in all, I believe the record encompasses a large variety of different aspects of life here on earth. It shows diversity, innovation, and progress (pictures of cities as well as hunter- gatherers). However, it fails to include one very crucial aspect of life: conflict. Conflict and competition inevitably exist anywhere life does- competition for resources, or sexual partners exists everywhere in nature and territorial disputes are very common as well- not to mention that us humans have a nasty habit of going to war against one another.

 

There is a good reason none of this was included on the golden records- it is a part of us which we do not want to live on, and something that we seem to be ashamed of. With all of our ‘progress’ and technological capabilities we have not managed get rid of wars, genocides and animalistic ideologies; and it is something we won’t be ridding ourselves of for a long time to come. However, some people do seem to understand that if we are to survive as a species, this cannot go on for much longer. With ever increasing technological capabilities our destructive powers will only grow, and as this happens the power one individual has to cause harm to society also grows- it takes only one skilled person these days to build a bomb and potentially harm hundreds of people around him. This wasn’t the case 70 years ago, but our explosives have gotten more effective and cheaper. U.S president Carter understood this, which is why his official statement included

“We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilisations.”

The omission of conflict on the golden record is a symbol of hope and ambition for survival, or even a better world, which we as a collective share.

 

We must remember though, that the odds that either of the Voyager probes ever get found are minuscule. Considering how large our universe is, and how unimaginably tiny these probes are on a galactic scale, chances are that both probes will just continue to drift through space, and not encounter anything until the end of time. On top of that we have to consider that even if either, or both of them are found that most likely the messages recorded on the record will not be understood. This particular method of recording is a completely human invention, and the record will probably not even be identified as a data storage device. Furthermore, assuming that the messages are decoded- extraterrestrials might not understand our symbols, might not have the ability to hear, or might not see with the visible light part of the electromagnetic spectrum- meaning they wouldn’t see the images (the way we do). With all this in mind- it would be a miracle if extraterrestrials understood the message we sent out to them!

 

But I think that is secondary, and it doesn’t really matter whether it is found or not. By sending a probe with information into interstellar space we have already created something which will outlive us- a gesture which is more symbolic than anything else. The reason I chose to write this article is because I admire the hope and ambition this record represents.

At the moment of writing, both Voyager probes are still in contact with NASA- both probes being approximately 2×1010 km (20,000,000,000km) away from earth [8]. Even though their technological equipment is outdated we still continue to receive valuable data about interstellar space, something we will continue doing until about the year 2025 at which point they Voyagers’ generators will run out of fuel. However since they are venturing though interstellar space, devoid of any air resistance or other types of friction these probes will continue travelling at their current speed of 15.4 km/s (55,000 km/h) [8] indefinitely- meaning that distant stars or even planetary systems will be reached by Voyager(s) in many tens of thousands, or even millions of years where it will potentially be discovered by someone. Even if humanity is long gone by then, it will be then that the Voyager probes fulfil their true purpose, and their mission will finally come to an end.

 


 

References

[1] – http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/science/planetary.html

[2] – http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/features/3124787/Banksy-in-his-own-words.html#ixzz2Q9taUXub%7CThe

[3] – http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=7890

[4] –  Sagan, Carl (1994). Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1st ed.). New York: Random House. ISBN 9780679438410.

[5] –  Nelson, Stephanie; Polansky, Larry (November 1993). “The Music of the Voyager Interstellar Record”, Journal of Applied Communication Research, p. 358–375.

[6] – http://www.kvart-bolge.com/#!The-Truly-Most-Expensive-Record-Ever-25-billion-dollars-no-Beatles-and-no-nudity/c1rr6/557a38940cf2c5991af3e149

[7] – Sagan, Carl (1997). Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. Random House. ISBN 0-679-41160-7.

[8] –  “Voyager Mission: Weekly Reports of 26 December 2014”.

 

 

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