Scientists recently reported that radio transmissions tend to weaken over large distances, leading them to the startling revelation that writing something and mailing it through space is the best way to communicate with aliens. This drew my attention to the Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977 — after all, didn’t they carry just such a message?
Indeed, the two Voyager deep-space probes each hold gold-plated copper discs — called the “Golden Record” — to be played in a record player (supplied on board) and containing a snapshot of information from Earth. Assuming the aliens can assemble the player and figure out the instructions, they’re in for quite a treat: a deep-space personal ad for the entire human race, assembled under the direction of Carl Sagan.
Initially, I found the Golden Record fascinating. How, indeed, do you communicate across untold distances to creatures with no knowledge of your language, writing, symbols, numbering or math?
But while the first couple of plaques are neat — these deal with basic number systems and offer cryptic heiroglyphic instructions on how to play the records — the remainder of the album, I am sorry to report, is pretty poor.
I spent quite some time drilling around NASA’s Voyager Web site (http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov), examining the Golden Record. I listened to the “Greetings From Earth” in all 55 languages. I studied the accompanying music selection. The dozens of images depicting life on our planet. The innumerable, confusing line drawings. The list goes on. The result? The collection, overall, is a pretty bland harvest of circa ten thousand years of civilization.
Do you realize that we share collective responsibility, as humans, for sending some poor aliens a mix tape containing about 90 percent classical concertos, rounded out by South American pipe-blowing and “Johnny B Goode”? You can’t rage to a single song on there. Any alien is more than justified in showing up on your doorstep clutching this thing and demanding an explanation.
Because we are all equally accountable for this, it behooves us to at least familiarize ourselves with the contents of our messages. For starters, we have the aforementioned music selection, apparently pulled in equal amounts from the discount bin and Carl Sagan’s basement. Then, we offer greetings saying such things as “Good night ladies and gentlemen, goodbye and see you next time” in Indonesian, and “Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time” in the Min dialect Amoy. Strange messages to send to aliens. I guess it doesn’t matter, since the aliens likely don’t speak Amoy — but given this, why not say something a little more coy? Playful? Insulting? How about “Aliens are totally not as good as humans!” in Afrikaans or “Bulldog, bulldog bow-wow-wow” in Urdu. The possibilities were truly limitless; NASA really dropped the ball on this one, I think. Also, they apparently commissioned an infant to voice the English greeting, making it very hard to understand.
We arrive now at the collection of images.
These range from random (girl looking in some microscope, cars on a highway) to boring (photos of Jupiter? dude, the aliens can see stuff like that where they are) to really, fully weird. My personal favorite is “Eating and Drinking”, a jarring full-color photograph of three smug humans performing hideously exaggerated dinnertime actions. Evidently intended as a simple visual depiction of human food and liquid consumption, this photo instead comes off as a Polaroid-snapped candid from a mental ward. We’ve only one chance to make a first impression. NASA, please take heed.
The image entitled “Family Ages” is another fine example of good intentions gone hopelessly awry: this image supposedly depicts family members of various ages, silhouetted against a white background, and listing their mass and height. Assuming the goal is noble — not, say, to give the aliens an idea of the exact cooking time required to broil a human toddler — the implementation remains atrocious. Armed as I am with a decent grasp of human anatomy, I still concentrated far too long deciphering these shapes. That NASA chose to silhouette squatting, sitting and kneeling people is bad enough — but what’s with all their masses ending in a half-kilogram? I mean, really, the aliens have just learned to read our numbers, and we throw a bunch of fractions at them? Come on, NASA, round it up!
The audio assortment is another gold mine. There are animal noises, and “Sounds of Earth” including such family favorites as “blacksmith dings metal with a hammer,” “crying baby” and “jackhammer rattles for 30 seconds.” These are noises we try to avoid on Earth. Somehow, mailing them into space doesn’t seem like the best idea, especially given the very limited room we have for a message. Why not send origami instructions, or an Atari? (Aliens should get a big kick out of “Galaxian.”)
As it stands, the chances of aliens ever finding this album are pleasantly remote, so the Golden Record is actually little more than human self-reflection on things we consider important, worth preserving and worth communicating. Still, this fails to redeem most of the content. Granted, the math stuff was pretty cool, and some of the animal sounds were alright. But the images are weird and are often incomprehensible, even to humans. The same goes for the music selection and the greetings. Indeed, the majority of the material on the Golden Record pretty much stinks, and it’s chilling to think that any one of us might one day be held accountable for mailing this around the universe. Be prepared.
Michael Seringhaus is a fourth-year graduate student in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry.