Is there any intelligent life out there in the cosmos? And if so, are they into Chuck Berry?
Thanks to the Voyager space probes, launched in 1977, we may find out. The probes have completed their primary objectives of gathering data and taking images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, picked up slingshot speed from the gravitational pulls of those planets and are hurtling into the abyss between solar systems.
Of the two crafts, Voyager 1 entered interstellar space in 2012 and Voyager 2 will depart next year. Zooming at a rate of about 11 miles per second, Voyager 1 has traveled farther than anyone or anything in human history.
If alien life find either one, they will discover a message from humanity — our golden record.
Part time capsule and part message from Earth, the gold-covered, two-sided LP contains words, images, music and lots of science, essentially the world’s greatest mix tape.
Astronomer Carl Sagan was named in 1976 to head the golden-record team, and his assemblage of scientists, sci-fi writers and philosophers had just three weeks to finish the job. Pioneering astronomer Frank Drake is credited with the idea of a gold-anodized copper LP, with its information etched in grooves that could last for billions of years. In his new book, “The Interstellar Age,” author Jim Bell speculates that the notion of the LP may even have been influenced “by the many concept albums that were climbing the US music charts in the early-mid 1970s.”
“Musical dramas by Pink Floyd, ELO, Styx, David Bowie,” he writes, “certainly could have helped set the context for the Voyager record team pulling together what could end up being the greatest concept album of all time.”
The record contains 116 digitized photographs, along with diagrams intended to teach the recipient how to comprehend the photos. Trees, mountains, oceans and a variety of animals were included, along with human behaviors, such as a man eating grapes both in a field and another of him eating grapes in a market. Other photos illustrated how humans learn, dress, socialize and build — even a stroboscopic picture of a gymnast performing a routine on a balance beam.
Absurdly, government bureaucrats balked at the idea of actual photos of human nudity being sent into space but allowed drawings of the nude form.
Testaments to mankind’s engineering accomplishments include images of the Sydney Opera House, an airport, a radio telescope and the Taj Mahal. It was decided that non-benevolent images would be avoided — both because Sagan felt that including a picture of, say, a nuclear mushroom cloud wasn’t the optimal display of the human spirit, but also so any aliens who found the record wouldn’t misinterpret those images as a threat.
Incidentally, there were a few intellectuals at the time who were against including the golden record at all, fearing that it drew a road map to Earth — including our spot in the galaxy and solar system — for any belligerent alien out there. But in the end, optimism won out.
Beyond the informative aspects of the record, the team tried to convey the emotion of humanity with 27 pieces of music, about 90 minutes in all, along with terrestrial sounds like chirping crickets and friendly greetings in 55 different languages. Sagan’s own 6-year-old son added, “Hello from the children of planet Earth.”
The team wrestled with the idea of including artworks such as paintings. But limitations on space killed the idea, as well as the realization that abstract art, at least, would more likely confuse than clarify. What would an alien make of Picasso, for example?
The record’s music skews heavily classical, with three pieces by Bach and two by Beethoven. Global diversity was sought, and percussion from Senegal was added along with bagpipes and Peruvian pan flutes.
For contemporary music, the Beatles were the obvious choice, and the band members suggested “Here Comes the Sun.” But in 1976, six years after the Fab Four’s breakup, it’s a testament to the morass of proprietary wrangling over the Beatles catalogue that the idea was scrapped and no Beatles song was sent into outer space — because lawyers couldn’t stop quibbling over the publishing rights.
Instead, Sagan’s team went with Chuck Berry, over the objection of one scientist who was pushing hard for Bob Marley. Sagan suggested the song “Roll Over Beethoven,” but he was outvoted and the pick was “Johnny B. Goode.”
The first golden record was sealed, mounted on the Voyager 1 craft and launched into space on Sept. 5, 1977.
The next year, in a comedy skit on “Saturday Night Live,” Steve Martin read aloud an alien’s transmitted response upon finding the Voyager golden record. The response simply said: “Send more Chuck Berry.”
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