Forty years ago this month, Planet Earth said hello to the cosmos with the launch of the two Voyager probes that used gravity to swing from world to world on a grand tour of the solar system. Each bore a two-sided, 12-inch, gold-plated copper “Golden Record” of sights and sounds from Earth and its people — and a stylus to help play the record.
About 20 billion kilometers (about 12.5 billion miles) from home now, Voyager I has since become the most distant human-made object in space. Voyager 2, in clear second place, is now about 17.2 billion kilometers away.
You could call the Golden Record a sort of intergalactic greeting card, love letter, map or time capsule — even humankind’s most epic mixtape.
“It may also be the last surviving human artifact and thus perhaps an ark,” says UW Information School associate professor Joe Janes in a new episode to his ongoing Documents that Changed the World podcast noting the Voyager anniversary.
“It’s all these things and more,” Janes adds. “Though for me the best metaphor is a message in a bottle — likely the ultimate message in a bottle.”
In the podcast series — which also became a book this year — Janes explores the origin and often evolving meaning of historical documents both famous and less-known.
In this new, Voyager-inspired episode, Janes discusses the planning and creation of the Golden Record, which was the brainchild of Carl Sagan, the world-famous Cornell University physicist who led the group that built two records and decided what information they should carry, to represent Earth to the universe.
Janes is a longtime fan of Sagan and his work: “I saw Cosmos on PBS in 1980 and was hooked, both on the mysteries of the universe and our presence in it,” he says, discussing the podcast episode. “And on the whole idea of public intellectualism — that it’s OK to be smart and articulate and thoughtful and forceful, in not only educating but advocating for science and reason.”
Sagan’s group, he says, decided early on that the language of science would be the best common means of communication, and so included on the records images to reflect basic scientific concepts and symbols “to establish mathematical and physical bases, then images of the sun and solar system.
“The first image, meant to help in the decoding process, is a circle, which I don’t think the designers ever fully appreciated for its beauty, simplicity and unity,” Janes says.
Music and sounds sent include Bach, gamelan music, Senegalese percussion, a Pygmy girl’s initiation song, Australian Aboriginal songs, and more. Rock and roll was represented by Chuck Berry’s guitar-fueled classic, “Johnny B. Goode.”
The organizers were nearly all Western, Caucasian men.
“The choices they made are imperfect, as they would be in any case,” Janes says. “But they also bear the stamp of a small group of people who genuinely wanted to do well in encapsulating the human experience for anybody who might care to listen, beyond the stars or here at home.”
Even Sagan may never have dreamed that the records would really find aliens. But we can hope. And as Janes says in the podcast, “Bound up in the attempt is one of the most basic of human desires — to be remembered and understood.”
The Voyager spacecraft, not aimed at anything in particular now, continue to speed away from Earth at about 40,000 miles per hour.
And so the Golden Records take their place among Janes’ Documents that Changed the World.
Will they go on to become documents that change other worlds?
Only time — “billions and billions of years,” as Sagan might have said — will tell.
For more information about Janes or his work, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.