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Message in an Interstellar Bottle

The Voyager spacecraft have been in the news lately, because their thirty-year journey has now taken them to something very like the edge of the Solar System. Of course, that’s something of an arbitrary boundary. It’s partly a matter of human-centered definition; and it has varied, too, because the Voyagers keep making new discoveries.Voyager 1 is beaming back data about the solar wind; it has reached a strange place, the “heliosheath,” a sort of solar bubble, described by Ed Stone, the chief project scientist, as “a sluggish, turbulent ring.”

Stone and I were on Science Friday last week with Ira Flatow. Stone explained that the fairly weak transmitter on board, at its current distance of 11 billion miles, still manages to send information earthbound at a rate of 160 bits per second, which reminded Ira of his ancient 300-baud modem.

It happens that Voyager makes a cameo appearance in The Information. That’s not because of any of its scientific discoveries but because it is carrying an outbound message—information from us (earthlings) to any faraway creatures who should chance to encounter this contraption in years to come.

The information is stored in what is called the “Golden Record.” It is a 12-inch disk, a phonograph record, not vinyl but gold-plated copper. (The record can be seen affixed to the spacecraft in the photo above.) A committee led by Carl Sagan chose sounds of the earth: greetings in fifty-five languages, the voices of whales and crickets, the tapping of a telegraph operator, and music of the West and East including the first prelude of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier as played by Glenn Gould.

It is worth remembering that as of 1977, the phonograph was the most popular technology in existence for the preservation of sound.

The question arises—and this is why I discuss it in The Information—assuming the alien spacefarers manage to play the disk, how much will they understand? What sort of implicit knowledge is required—what sort of shared code book? One would like to think that the Bach prelude, if not the chatter of crickets, will convey some meaning.

5 Comments

  1. Karl Berry says

    You probably know this well, but the Gould performance is of the first prelude and fugue from book II of the WTC, not the much-more-well-known book I pieces. (According to the Voyager web pages, anyway.) The choice has always puzzled me.

    (Perhaps Johnny B. Goode or the Pygmy girls’ initiation song from Zaire will go over better. :)

    Thanks for all your great books.

  2. Steve Pratt says

    James: “It is worth remembering that as of 1977, the phonograph was the most popular technology in existence for the preservation of sound.”

    Just a personal observation — I was well into 8-tracks in 1970 and then cassettes by 1972 — but wasn’t the idea of including a phonograph recording because one could decode the audio by the simplest of mechanical means (a needle glued to a tin can for instance) and that the recording wouldn’t be subject to degradation due to electro-magnetic interference like tape would be?

    I’ve always been under that impression anyway.

    Cheers,
    Steve

  3. Ben Branstetter says

    I imagine, if an interstellar race is to find Voyager centuries and centuries from now, they’ll be begging to know how long ago it was sent. As they awkwardly handle the phonograph, will it be perceived as infinitely advanced or as cuneiform? It’s amazing to think that, had Sagan and NASA waited a mere 25 years, Gould’s performance would have been squeezed into a flash drive (“Universal Serial Bus”, indeed).

  4. Stephen Black says

    I read Blooms “Global Brain” after “The Information” and was struck by the thought that maybe the bacteria that we occasionally find in space are “voyagers” that contain recorded messages in an even more obvious, high fidelity medium common to all life. Maybe we carry it in our DNA today!

    On the reverse of course Voyager assumes a fairly limited and particularly anthropocentric concept of a life-form that can read, manipulate a stylus and has ears. Did we have the forethought send a vial of DNA on voyager (whos?) or will the bacteria that would be hitchhiking on voyager be of more interest?

  5. iamronen says

    to me this reiterates how fleeting experiences of importance and achievements really are … compared of course to how much attachment we usually associate with them.

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