About this time 40 years ago, two spacecraft were speeding away from Earth toward a rendezvous with the outer planets of the solar system. They carried with them, along with scientific instruments, a message from humanity to other beings in the universe, should these beings ever find it (and should they even exist). The message, contained in a gold-plated record, included sounds of the planet’s natural phenomena and wildlife, photos of its people, greetings in dozens of languages, and samplings of music.
It was a trailer for the feature-length film that was Earth, a brief collection of sounds and scenes that teased an entire world.
Now, the two copies of the Golden Record are billions of miles from home. Voyager 1 has carried its record out of the solar system altogether, while Voyager 2 is on its way there. The world today is vastly different than the one they left behind.
Maybe it’s time for a follow-up. Let’s say people got another shot at the Golden Record, a chance to give the cosmos an update. What might they send?
Let’s start with the hardware. The Golden Records are gold-plated copper phonographs that could last hundreds of billions of years. A gold-plated copper version of a flash drive may sound less appealing, but it’s likely that the creators of the Golden Record 2.0 may consider packaging the message using digital technology. Engineers who have worked on robotic missions around the solar system say the hardware would need to be pretty indestructible, capable of surviving extreme temperatures, radiation, and long stretches of time. Unfortunately, humans haven’t yet invented digital tech that meets all these requirements. And that’s okay, according to the people who made the Golden Record.
“If we were going to do the Voyager record for another spacecraft, I would do it exactly the way we did it then,” said Timothy Ferris, the record’s producer.
Jon Lomberg, the record’s designer, agrees. Analog, not digital, is the way to go. “Nothing’s going to outlast a metal record,” he said.
A digital message would be able to hold far more information than a phonograph record, but it may be more difficult to decode. The user manual etched into the Golden Record, which explains how to reveal the information encoded in the disk in analog form, is certainly complicated, but a guide for deciphering a digital message could be worse. “Yeah, you can record a lot of pictures, but how are the aliens ever going to be able to read them? They’re not going to know what a JPEG is,” Lomberg said.
So what about the actual contents of this next-generation Golden Record? Some critics of the original say it was a poor representation of Earth because it was created by a small group of people who chose to present a rosy view of humans and leave out the terrible things they’re capable of. Lomberg, Ferris, and other Voyager members say the criticism is fair, but Lomberg said the tone of the message was appropriate for the job. The Golden Record was both a first impression and a final word. “You meet somebody, you don’t start by telling them all your flaws,” he said. “We presume this will be found after we’re all long dead. Isn’t it nice to be remembered for what’s best rather than what’s worst?”
Plus, Carl Sagan, who led the project, didn’t want any aliens interpreting images of violence—a mushroom cloud of an explosion, for example—as a threat, Lomberg said.
Still, Lomberg believes the next cosmic broadcast should be made with the input of many people and include some of the bad stuff, too. He’s currently running a Kickstarter campaign to crowdsource a Golden Record 2.0, which he hopes to convince NASA to upload to the computers of New Horizons, the spacecraft that flew past Pluto two years ago. New Horizons is expected to eventually follow the Voyagers out of the solar system. A crowdsourced effort would be “a self-portrait the way the Voyager record never really could be,” Lomberg said.
Lomberg would advise people choosing new photos to try to get into the mindset of an alien, as strange as that may sound. “You might think they never would have seen a squirrel, but they probably would have seen a snowflake, because a snow crystal is going to be on many worlds where there’s water and it’s cold,” he said. Lomberg would include a recent photo of Jupiter, something better than the grainy image they included on the original. He’d add a photo of people dancing, and maybe a shot of the Pyramids. He thinks of something every day. “For years afterward, still, I’d see a picture and go, oh boy, that would’ve been great,” he said.
For Ferris, the list of songs the Golden Record should have included is endless, but there’s no room for regrets. “It would have been nice to have some Italian opera on the record. Italian opera is wonderful. But there are a thousand other things that are wonderful,” he said.
Future iterations should avoid lyric-heavy tunes or contemporary songs, he said: “You wouldn’t want to take the latest hit song—a Kesha song or an Ariana Grande song. I like those two artists, and I might get really excited about a piece in a particular week, but it’d be crazy to put it on a record because you couldn’t ever go back.”
An open mind helps. Ferris remembers Sagan thinking Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” was “just awful” when Sagan first heard it, but he eventually came around and the song made it on the record. As Lomberg recalls, Alan Lomax, an ethnomusicologist who helped curate the music, once called the song “adolescent,” and Sagan countered, “Well, you know, there’s a lot of adolescents on Earth, too.”
The creators of the next Golden Record will find the process of compiling the message far easier than their predecessors did. Instead of combing through books and and vinyl records, they’ll be scouring websites and MP3s. Some elements will remain the same, particularly the awareness of the importance of a cosmic message and the pressure that comes with getting it right. Technology and music tastes may change over four decades, but the human anxiety about making mistakes never will.
“What a lot of us were feeling during that time primarily was, don’t let me screw this up,” Lomberg said. “This is forever.”
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