First contact: that glorious moment, some bright morning on a day that’s yet to come, when humanity shakes hands with intelligent extraterrestrial life (or whatever sort of weird space-hands aliens have) and we step assuredly, no longer chained by neither gravity nor ignorance, into the next chapter of our species’ story.
We’re going to screw it up. Worse still, we probably screwed it up over 40 years ago. At least, that’s according to scientists who say the contents of NASA’s Golden Record—a gold record full of sights and sounds of life on earth, launched on the Voyager spacecrafts in 1977—will give any aliens lucky enough to find it an absurd and twisted view of who we are. Unless they’re just like us, then it’ll probably be cool.
The Golden Record is a beautiful idea. It’s a gold plated copper disc with collection of 177 pictures on one side, and an extensive collection of audio, both natural and man-made, on the other. It’s an interstellar tourist pamphlet of sorts: this is what earth sounds like, this is what earth looks like, this is a bit of what you can expect, nice to make your acquaintance. Along with the Voyager spacecrafts the two interstellar copies are riding on, the Golden Record is the farthest bit of humanity from Earth. This is what President Jimmy Carter said at the time of Voyager’s launch in 1977:
If one…civilization 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 civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.
Truly beautiful Jimmy. Here’s why it’s a spectacular mistake.
According to the Guardian, Rebecca Orchard and Sheri Wells-Jensen, researchers at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, say that the collection of sounds and images on the Golden Record is “decidedly human-centric.” There are sounds of nature—including whale songs, the whistling wind, chimpanzees, wild dogs, and earthquakes. There are also man-made sounds like chainsaws, orchestra pieces and Carl Sagan’s laughter. There are greetings spoken in 55 very different languages, and no way of translating. On the other side are images: pictures of flowers, equations, maps, DNA and chemical structures, images of the planets (which is probably the most mediocre thing we could possibly show a space-faring alien race) and, because of backlash at NASA for daring to include pictures of naked humans, a silhouette of a man and a woman. The rub of it is there’s absolutely no key for correlating matching sounds and images, or even letting the poor befuddled ET know that there is almost no correlation. Rebecca Orchard puts it this way:
The Golden Record is a beautiful artifact and representation of how humans want to see themselves, but it is meant to be received by and interpreted by something that has the sensory capabilities of the average human.
What if you pair the image of an open daffodil with the roar of a chainsaw?”
At least the cover has cryptic instructions on how to play the thing.
As to our 55-language welcome, Orchard and Wells-Jensen say the greetings “pile up in a way that could be construed as arguing.” The researchers think that the most confusing part of the Golden Record could be the collection of music, which ranges from western classical pieces to Japanese folk-music. I’d bet that our music would be the most pleasant and easiest to decipher of the bunch, and at least a welcome break from the sound of crying infants.
Still, the researchers have an optimistic view of the Golden Record. Orchard says:
“What this project has shown me is that we can’t really control the impression we make,” said Orchard. “I think the fact of the satellite itself will do a lot of the talking. I would hope that the mere fact that we’ve endeavored to send a record of humanity shows something about our humanity.”
Come on, it was 1977. If we really wanted to bare our souls, we could have just dropped “The Chain” on them and called it a day.