Tag Archives: Golden Record

Everything’s Gonna Be Alright

by Shane L. Larson

The inimitable Mary Fahl has a remarkable song that I listen to all the time, especially on days when it seems impossible that the world has not totally fallen apart. It is a sonorous and passionate piece called “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” It opens:

Blind Willie Johnson in a capsule singing ‘bout the soul of man
Encoded traces of the human race and what we understand
A human choir out in the distance trav’ling by a satellite
Symphonic strains of our existence burned into a single byte
Mary Fahl performing “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.”

For the uninitiated, Mary’s song may seem strange or obtuse — lyrical renderings of language that may have philosophical meaning if contemplated long enough, or may inspire deep visceral emotions if interpreted in certain ways, or simply seem to be pleasant nonsense in the way only songs and poetry can be.

But in reality, Mary’s song is a tribute, heartfelt and full of wonder, for one of our species’ most audacious and hopeful acts: the creation of a message that will far outlive our civilization, promising whoever hears it that we are sometimes better than we often are. The message was created, physically engraved in precious metals, and cast out into the wild voids of the Cosmos, never to be seen again.

That message is known as the Voyager Golden Record. Two copies of the record were minted from disks of copper plated in gold, shrouded beneath protective covers of aluminum, and mounted on the side of each of the two Voyager spacecraft. 

The Voyager Golden Record; the panel on the left shows the cover (inscribed with information to decode the record), and the panel on the right shows the record itself. [Images: NASA/JPL]

Launched 16 days apart in the autumn of 1977, the Voyager spacecraft were ostensibly part of humanity’s first reconnaissance of the solar system, sent to explore the giant worlds of the outer solar system — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. They swung by each world, dutifully snapping pictures and radioing their precious scientific data back to the distant rock from which they hailed. As they passed by each world, gravity latched on to them, propelling them ever faster and farther, on to their next destination.

Voyager flight paths through the solar system [Image: NASA/JPL]

Voyager 1 passed Saturn in November of 1980, and the Ringed Planet flung it up and out of the plane of the solar system, toward the constellation of Ophiuchus. In August of 1989, after a twelve year journey, Voyager 2 passed by Neptune, letting the icy giant’s gravity swing it down and out of the solar system, propelling it in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. After fleeting and tantalizing glimpses of our cosmic neighborhood, the Voyagers have started the long, slow sail to the stars. Today they are the most distant physical artifacts of the human race, both of them more than 20 billion kilometers away, the Sun and Earth mere flecks of distant light.

Powered by small nuclear generators, the Voyagers’ energy is nearly spent. They will dutifully continue to transmit faint bleeps of information back to Earth, but within a decade or so they will fall silent and grow cold, hurtling ever onward toward the stars. Time, space dust, and cosmic radiation will take their toll on these artifacts of Earth, but the Golden Records were designed to stall such inevitable decay for as long as possible. Made of metals that are unreactive and change slowly over time, and encased behind protective aluminum covers, they should resist the long slow death, surviving for a billion years or more..

But what possibly could we have put on the Golden Records to warrant such care and concern about their survival? Mary Fahl told us up front:

Encoded traces of the human race and what we understand

Within the limitations of a physical object that could survive a billion year journey into deep space, we captured what we could about our species, the planet on which we live, the lifeforms we share the Earth with, and the meager understanding of the Cosmos we have gained. Together with greetings in many languages of the planet, and a selection of music from around the world, we engraved the information on 12-inch disks of gold covered copper, and sent them to the stars. It was a gesture of hope and optimism that, in some imagined future, an intelligent species somewhere across the empty sea of space might stumble across Voyager and be able to know something about who we were, faint echoes of a lonely planet and species that once dreamed of sailing to the stars.

Blind Willie Johnson [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

The key elements of the Voyager record are the protective cover, an included stylus (phonograph needle) to play the record, 115 images, a collection of the “sounds of Earth,” spoken greetings in 55 languages, and 90 minutes of music in 27 tracks. Blind Willie Johnson is the second to last track, singing  Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground, a blues Gospel song, with no words but Johnson murmuring and humming along with his soulful guitar picking.

By today’s standards, the amount of data on the record is miniscule — a handful of images that are 512 x 384 resolution, and only 90 minutes of music. But that’s all there is, a small snapshot of life on Earth at the end of the 20th Century. It is likely one of the only artifacts of humanity that will survive our species; for some distant intelligence that might someday find Voyager, it is the only thing they will ever know of us.

The assumption we are making is that whomever might find Voyager will make an attempt to decode the Record. It’s an all together human assumption — if you found a bottle washed up on the seashore, a message carefully preserved inside, would you open the bottle to read it? Of course you would! In our optimism, we trust the receivers of our message will do the same.

On the surface, it seems to be an audacious thought, that a message encoded on a facsimile of a phonograph record could be received and decoded by an extraterrestrial who knows absolutely nothing about us, our technology, our species, our cultures, or our languages. But the message was designed with precisely that concern in mind. Astronomers call the idea of receiving such a message “communication without preamble,” and believe understanding it is predicated on a single fact: that the receiving civilization is technologically skilled.

The Voyager record cover provides protection, but also has information about how numbers are expressed (the “barbell” in the lower right is a hydrogen atom, whose properties should be known), instructions for how to play the record (the image of the stylus on the circle in the upper left), instructions for how to get data off the record (the information on the upper right, showing the data and the first image), and a map of where Voyager came from (the starburst on the lower left). [Image: NASA/JPL]

One of the great truths of the Universe, and perhaps the greatest mystery, is that everything is governed by an immutable set of rules that we call The Laws of Nature. The idea, the logical chain of reasoning, is that if you are capable of travelling into space to discover Voyager, it means you have a deep understanding of those self-same laws, enough so that you can harness them to travel the void of space yourselves. So we encoded the Voyager message using the common foundations of astronomy, physics, and mathematics that apply in every corner of the Cosmos, and trust that an understanding of those foundations will provide enough of a clue to decode Voyager’s precious cargo of sounds, music, and images. 

If you think deeply about this, you might argue that an alien species that recovers Voyager may not have eyes to see as we do, so images may not carry the same meaning. They may not have ears to hear as we do, so music may not be perceivable in the same way. But consider: there are many phenomena in Nature that our senses cannot perceive, yet our intellect and technology make us perfectly capable of detecting and understanding. If an extraterrestrial species is technologically capable, we think they will similarly be able to apply their intellect to understand the story Voyager has to tell.

How do you decide what to include in a message you are sending to the stars? What do you put in a time-capsule to represent our planet and ourselves to an audience we will never know? What do you send to a world and a biology and a history and an intellect completely alien to our own? What do you want beings a million years from now to know about us?

We could be cynical, we could be optimistic, we could be realistic, we could be practical. What should we be?

It is often pointed out that we could have included images and messages about our great failings. The wars we fight, the violence we inflict on one another, our great failings in justice and equity for all the citizens and life of the planet. We could have included images of atomic mushroom clouds, of dead school-children, of wasted and decimated landscapes destroyed by our short-sighted obsessions. But we didn’t do that. We took a very neutral stance, perhaps a sanitized vision of our world. We included pictures of our planet from space, of a tropical island, of a mother and child, of a farmer in Guatelmala, and 111 others. A cynical person might suggest we were being overly deceptive, and not showing the truly ruthless and sad character of our species. Perhaps, but I think not.

Just a few of the images included on the Voyager Golden Record. See a more complete list at NASA’s Golden Record Site. [Images: NASA/JPL]

No, flipping through the image library of the Voyager Golden Record one also gets the sense that this is not just who we are, but what we hope we are — a species that is living through the challenges of our own adolescence, a species that is for the moment surviving, and a species that aspires and believes that many thousands of years hence, our descendants will still be here, wiser and better off than we. We tried to choose a series of images that say we learned enough to build Voyager, and while we’re aware of the dangers we currently face, we are also aware that we are part of a much larger Cosmos.  Our meager collection of images and music is a realization of what we have learned, manifested in the optimistic act of constructing an impossibly limited message containing a few precious tidbits of life on Earth, from a species called “humans.”

And we tossed the message into the Cosmic Void, knowing not where the tides of space might take it.

There is absolutely no consequence if Voyager is never found, nor if the message is never decoded. There is a certain solace we gain from the mere notion that it might be found and might be decoded. Perhaps that solace is rooted in a deep fear — the fear that we are alone in the Cosmos, and everything that we are and think and do will someday perish, extinguished utterly from the Universe.

But I much rather like to think that the solace is rooted in optimism. We believe that it is worth shouting into the Void, shouting that we were here and this is who we were. We believe that, perhaps, there will be beings as intelligent and curious and emotional as we, and that they too might find joy in the discovery of Voyager. We imagine they might feel inexorably compelled to decode the carefully constructed message, and discover that they also are not alone in all the expanse of the Cosmos. We imagine that they too might be struggling through their own adolescence, hoping to not destroy themselves. We imagine that if they receive this small, meager message from Earth, the knowledge that they are not alone might help them somehow. We imagine that such a message might help us.

It is remarkable to think that the act of creating the Voyager Record is an act of optimism, and precisely what Mary Fahl’s lyrical exploration suggests to me. It suggests that despite all the challenges our species faces, despite all the clear failures that we foist upon ourselves, that some part of us still knows the remarkable things we can achieve, and we imagine the good that could result.

In days of gloom, in days of sadness, no matter what we do here on Earth, Voyager sails ever onward, its Golden Record cradled carefully on board, a message for a billion years from now. Perhaps, as Mary noted, “everything’s gonna be alright.”

Feeling Small in a Big Cosmos 03: Proverbs

by Shane L. Larson

On 19 April 1610, Johannes Kepler wrote an open letter to Galileo Galilei, musing on possible future voyages that would allow explorers — human explorers — to see what Galileo’s telescope had shown.  He mused that some day inventors might “provide ship or sails adapted to the heavenly breezes, and there will be some who will not fear even that void.” Kepler called on Galileo to join him in preparing the way for those so0n to be travellers, and create a new science to light their way: astronomy.

Yuri Gagarin and the Vostok 1 launch on 12 April 1961.

Yuri Gagarin and the Vostok 1 launch on 12 April 1961.

It was almost exactly 351 years before Kepler’s speculations were realized — on 12 April 1961 the Soviet Union launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space. In a flight that lasted only 108 minutes, Gagarin orbited the Earth in a capsule bearing the callsign Kedr (“Cedar”), and initiated The Space Age.

Kepler’s poetic  words are a testament to our visceral desire to know the Cosmos. Gagarin was perhaps no less poetic when, in the middle of the launch, he belted out an exclamation of joy born from the same deep well of emotional longing — Gagarin’s hearty “Poyekhali!” (“Let’s go!”) ushered in a new era in the history of our species — the beginning of our quest to walk among the stars.

The Cosmos is vast, and nothing makes that point more abundantly clear than contemplating long journeys by humans into space. Trying to protect and sustain our fragile bodies for the duration of a long space voyage brings into sharp focus a single, glaring fact: we are designed for Earth, not for the void, not for alien landscapes, not for far-off icy moons. Despite all the tantalizing things we can see, it seems Nature never intended us to stray far from the small Blue Marble of Earth. We shouldn’t feel bad about that; it is also true for starfish, and seagulls, and housecats, and pine trees.

Every spaceprobe we have ever flung into space has returned remarkable pictures, and made new discoveries. Top to bottom: Mariner 4 was the first to flyby Mars, and returned the first pictures of the Red Planet's surface. The Soviet Venera 9 was the first to send pictures back from the surface of Venus; it survived for only 53 minutes. The Sojourner rover was the first spacecraft to move around Mars, in 1997. In November 2014, the lander Philae was the first spacecraft to land on a comet.

Every spaceprobe we have ever flung into space has returned remarkable pictures, and made new discoveries. Top to bottom: Mariner 4 was the first to flyby Mars, and returned the first pictures of the Red Planet’s surface. The Soviet Venera 9 was the first to send pictures back from the surface of Venus; it survived for only 53 minutes. The Sojourner rover was the first spacecraft to move around Mars, in 1997. In November 2014, the lander Philae was the first spacecraft to land on a comet.

But humans are a particularly stubborn and imaginative species. We could easily abandon the dream of travelling beyond Earth, but instead we designed and built machines to make the voyage for us. Our knowledge of the Cosmos today is largely populated by images collected by semi-intelligent robots built to be our eyes and ears. They have travelled where we cannot, and faithfully returned images which are arguably the most artistic, the most beautiful, the most stunning, the most confusing, the most awe-inspiring, and the most thought-provoking things humans have ever seen.

spacecraft_highresFor every space probe we have thrown into space, for every world they have visited, for every picture they have snapped, there is a tale to tell. All of them unique, all of them stirring. Let’s revisit the tale of one spacecraft that has been outbound now for almost 38 years; a spacecraft called Voyager 1.

Launched on a bright September morning in 1977, Voyager set sail for the outer solar system. Its mission was to visit Jupiter and Saturn and tell us what it discovered, and then to begin a long slow march into space, searching for the edge of the solar system. Voyager returned tens of thousands of pictures during its mission, but I find two particularly compelling.

In February of 1979, as Voyager was speeding toward its encounter with Jupiter, it snapped this photo: the most exquisite and detailed image of the iconic Great Red Spot ever taken. Voyager showed us the magnificent swirl and drift of the clouds on Jupiter, bands of colorful and dynamic gas driven by 600 kilometer per hour winds around the boundaries of a 400 year old hurricane twice the size of the Earth. This is a storm that,  before we turned our eyes to the skies, our species had never encountered nor imagined. But Voyager painted it for us, indelibly etching it into our memory, with a casual snap of a camera.

Voyager I view of the Great Red Spot as it approached Jupiter in 1979.

Voyager I view of the Great Red Spot as it approached Jupiter in 1979 [Image: NASA].

I like this picture because, to the unknowing eye, one might assume that it is a painting, made by an Earthbound artist, trying to capture or evoke some deep feeling or emotion about the human condition. But this was not painted by human hands. This is Nature painting, using a planet as its canvas.

After sailing past Jupiter, Voyager sped on to Saturn, where it took even more pictures and uncovered more mysteries, painting new pictures of a gentle giant bejeweled by a ring of ice. The encounter with Saturn ultimately propelled it on a course to carry it out of our solar system and into interstellar space. On Valentine’s Day in 1990, right after Voyager crossed the orbit of Neptune, we commanded it to turn its cameras inward and take one last series of pictures before they were turned off. In a sequence of 60 pictures, Voyager snapped a family portrait — a stitched panorama that contains every planet of the Solar System, the family of the Sun. This is the frame that contains the Earth. Like the Blue Marble, it is one of the most iconic images of Earth ever taken, dubbed The Pale Blue Dot.

The Pale Blue Dot -- the frame from the Voyager family portrait that includes the Earth [Image: NASA].

The Pale Blue Dot — the frame from the Voyager family portrait that includes the Earth [Image: NASA].

More than any other picture, this captures how small and tiny the Earth is. Voyager wasn’t even out of the solar system when it took this picture. In a Cosmic sense it was still close to home, and already the Earth was nothing bigger than a small fleck of light that if we weren’t looking for it, we may not have noticed.  Everything you’ve ever known is inside that dot.

This is the Earth. It’s tiny. And what I find most remarkable when I look at this image: there is nothing in this picture to indicate there is anything special about this planet. Nothing to indicate there is life there, nothing to indicate that we are there, nothing to indicate that this is where Voyager hails from. This one picture captures indelibly in a single frame the fact that we are small, in a Cosmic sense. Some days, we might feel despondent and overwhelmed by the immensity of it all.

The Voyager Golden Record.

The Voyager Golden Record.

But Voyager also carries a sign of our optimism about belonging to a much larger Cosmos. Bolted onto its side, is a Golden Record. It is a phonograph record, a message to anyone who might stumble on Voyager in the distant future, long after its electronics have died and it becomes little more than a fleck of space junk drifting aimlessly through the galaxy. Should someone find Voyager and its Golden Record,  they would find information about the record, and instructions for playing it. Included in those instructions is a map of the galaxy, pointing back to Voyager’s point of origin. On the reverse, etched in golden grooves that will survive a million year journey into the void, is a collection of data about us, and about our world. It includes greetings recorded in 55 languages of Earth. It includes 115 images from the planet Earth from the time when Voyager set sail into the Cosmos. It includes 90 minutes of music from our civilization. And engraved on the inner edge is a single sentence, in English, that reads “To the makers of music, all worlds, all times.”

This is not the kind of thing  you make and throw out into the vast sea of the Cosmos if you are hiding from the immensity of the Universe. Voyager will outlast every person alive on Earth today. It will outlast every one of us, every person who selected music or pictures to be included on this Golden Record. It will outlast our entire civilization. But some part of us can imagine — hopes — that Voyager will survive and be found, and tell the tale of who we are. Perhaps those listeners will be unimaginable alien intelligences; perhaps they will be our descendants who have utterly forgotten us and our civilization.

Voyager and all the other robotic spacecraft we have built are magnificent creations. We can look at them and be amazed that they have gone so far and seen so much. The very existence of pictures like those I have shown you, and literally millions of others like them, should convince you that we can do anything. We can solve any problem we face, we can uncover any mystery the Cosmos puts before us.

Which leads to one last, important thought. Let’s go back to where we started, thinking about the 10 billion billion grains of sand on Earth, and the 10,000 billion billion stars in the Cosmos.


Consider: in just ten drops of water, splashed on your window in a summer rainstorm, there are as many molecules of water as there are stars in the entire Universe. You have heard that every one of us is made of 50%-60% water. Which means there are 100,000 times more molecules of water in your body than there are stars in the entire Universe.

And every molecule of water has two atoms of hydrogen, which is what the stars are made of. And the other atom in every molecule of water is oxygen, which was made by stars, burning hydrogen. At the end of their lives, those stars exploded and threw all that they were back out into the Cosmos to eventually become all that you and I are.

In a very real way, you are atoms the Universe has assembled to look at itself. You are atoms that have been organized to look out into the Cosmos and ask the question, “What’s the deal with all those other atoms?

You are the Cosmos made manifest.

You are a way the Cosmos has organized itself to ask those questions that humans have always asked. Where did we come from? Where are we going? Why are we here? And what is our role to play in the enormous universe all around us?

We’re not different than all those other galaxies, than all those other stars, than all those other grains of sand. We’re all made of the same star stuff.

There is a meme that floats around the internet that is a purported Serbian proverb (1). “Be humble, you are made of the Earth. Be noble, you are made of the stars.

It’s okay to feel small. We are small, so we should be humble. We don’t know all there is to know about the Universe.  But be noble, because you are made of the stars. You and I are members of the only species we know that is capable of asking the questions we ask, of figuring things out and asking new questions. It’s very empowering and an important part of who we are. It’s something I think we tend to forget; we get caught up in our problems and in our concerns every single day. But just like artists, scientists, and clergy, we are all true seekers. We’re just trying to understand what our place in the Cosmos really is.

— (1) I have been unable to indeed verify that this is a proverb from Serbian culture! I would love it if someone actually knew where this came from!


This post is the last in a series of three that capture the discussion in a talk I had the great pleasure of giving for Illinois Humanities as part of their Elective Studies series, a program that seeks to mix artists with people far outside their normal community, to stimulate discussion and new ideas for everyone.  The first post can be found here:  http://wp.me/p19G0g-xB

Illinois Humanities taped this talk and you can watch it online;  many thanks to David Thomas for doing the videography!