Listen – 13:45 min
What’s the rarest piece of music? Something so exclusive, so expensive, so…literally out of reach, that no-one will likely ever get their hands on it ever again? It’s The Golden Record.
Currently…10.8 billion miles, (that’s 17.3 billion kilometers) away from the Sun and hurtling away from Earth at 38,610 miles per hour. It’s a mixtape, in interstellar space.
The Golden Record is literally a phonograph record attached to an unmanned spacecraft and travelling through space. Actually, there are two Golden Records, one on each of the two Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977 to photograph and study the outer Solar System.
And, they’re us. They’re playable time capsules filled with voice and music recordings, pictures, biological diagrams, celestial maps, and instructions on how to play them…for aliens.
That’s right. The Golden Record was created specifically to cut a cross-section of humanity for future civilizations in the far reaches of space to potentially find.
It was curated in 1976 and 77 by a NASA committee chaired by Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer and science educator best known for the original 1980 Cosmos TV series. The committee included Ann Druyan, science writer and Sagan’s future wife, who would go on to help produce the modern TV sequel Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey in 2014.
Some of the most iconic images of our Solar System were taken from Voyage spacecraft: pictures of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The famous Pale Blue Dot photograph of Earth was taken by Voyager 1 when it turned itself around in 1990 at a distance of 3.7 billion miles away.
The Golden Record begins with greetings in 55 different languages, both modern and ancient. Latin, Esperanto, Persian, Swedish, Mandarin, Aramaic…
4 more voices are elsewhere on the record, as are the calls of a whale, for a total of 59 human voices introducing the Earth. They were recorded at Cornell University by people in the school’s foreign language departments.
In addition, the record contains a printed message from then President Jimmy Carter which says in part:
“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 civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe”
Then, the “Sounds of Earth.” Volcanoes, crickets, a train, sheep in a field. A tractor, ships using Morse code, and the Saturn-V, the rocket that first sent men to the Moon in 1969, just 8 years before.
And then of course, music from all over the world. Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky. Music from China, India, Peru. A full 90 minutes of classical and folk, music from all different cultures and time periods.
And…“Johnny Be Good,” from Chuck Berry. As it turn out, this was a controversial choice. Some argued that rock and roll was too adolescent. To which Carl Sagan replied, “There are a lot of adolescents on the planet.”
The Golden Record was kind of a moment in pop culture too. In 1978 Saturday Night Live did a small bit about the Voyager missions. Steve Martin plays a psychic who can see the future and claims to have received a message from an alien civilization, “It may be just four simple words,” he says, “but it is the FIRST positive proof that other intelligent beings inhabit the universe.” He then holds up a copy of next weeks’ Time Magazine and the cover reads simply: “Send More Chuck Berry.” http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/next-week-in-review/3008107?snl=1
In the original Star Trek film in 1979, the Enterprise crew investigate the mysterious V’Ger, an alien cloud threatening to destroy the Earth. Deep inside this alien spaceship, Captain Kirk discovers an unknown satellite…and wiping soot from its plaque, reads its name aloud. Only to discover it’s actually from Earth.
In addition to music there are over 100 images on the Golden Record. Images of people, animals, the Earth from orbit, and our neighbors in the Solar System: planets with width marks scratched into them, pictures of clouds with measurements. People eating, children learning in a classroom, houses in Africa, the UN building in New York and a traffic jam in Thailand.
But…how would an alien know how to play this thing? Or even what it is? Well, on the flip side are diagrams attempting to detail the record’s contents in the most universal ways scientists could think of. The first diagram is of the record itself and the included stylus, (that’s the needle which reads the divots in the record). It puts the stylus in the correct starting position on the outside edge, like a typical vinyl record.
But a record’s got to spin, right? How do you explain to an alien that in order for music to sound like how we want it, there needs to be a proper rpm? Time is relative. What we agreed to call minutes and seconds are derived from the Earth’s daily rotation and the time it takes us to go around our sun. A minute on Earth is also likely not a minute elsewhere do to Special Relativity. In fact, satellites in orbit around the Earth have to take into consideration this time dilation caused by gravity. Clocks in orbit literally tick slower, a difference of about 7 millionths of a second.
The solution they came up with comes from chemistry. The speed to turn the record, 3.7 seconds per rotation, was expressed in units of .7 billionths of a second. That’s the time period associated with the transition of the hydrogen atom. Essentially, the nucleus and electrons in an atom oscillate at constant frequencies dictated by their mass and gravity. Hydrogen the most abundant element in the universe, so it’s hoped an advanced civilization with knowledge of the atom would be able to decipher the diagram and calibrate the record accordingly.
This constant time period is also the key to the rest of the message, which can be used to decipher the remaining diagrams, one of which depicts our location in the galaxy relative to 14 different pulsars, and read the images, coded in basically a video signal.
If you’ve ever read Carl Sagan’s book Contact, they do essentially the same thing, only a radio signal. Complex information encoded in simple, universal laws. Here it is in the 1997 movie.
So what are the chances Voyager is scooped up by a distant civilization and The Golden Record understood? Well, virtually 0. Like, really. While Voyager 1 is the farthest man-made object from Earth and in 2012 crossed the boundary into interstellar space, it’ll be about 40,000 years before it even passes close to another star. And while it’s still sending back data, many of its primary systems have stopped working and it’s expected by about 2025 its generators will no longer be able to make enough electricity to run its instruments. It’ll be dead. A hunk of metal, floating into the cold blackness of the galaxy, probably for billions of years.
But while we may lose contact, the message of our world will continue on into the unknown.
If we’re lucky, someone will find The Golden Record and learn about a species that millennia ago had the ambition to look to the stars. And if we’re very lucky, we’ll get a message back:
Send more Chuck Berry.
This is Signal Cannon.
- Signal Cannon is produced Billy Donahoe.
- Eric Donahoe wrote our theme music. Show art by Julianne Waber.
- The Pale Blue Dot is an excerpt of Carl Sagan’s Book The Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, published in 1994 and read aloud by Carl Sagan.
- Bill Nye excerpts courtesy of BigThink.com in an interview published in April 2017.
- Symphony No.5, was written by Ludwig van Beethoven, and performed by The Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer conducting. Recording in December 1955 for EMI.
- Azerbaijan bagpipes, recorded by Radio Moscow. Peruvian wedding song, recorded by John Cohen.
- Johnny B. Goode was written and recorded by Chuck Berry in 1958 and released on Chess Records.
- You can see and hear the entire Golden Record and learn more about the Voyager missions at jpl.nasa.gov.
- For more Signal Cannon and other great podcasts, visit PressForSound.com