» download (mp3, 2:12)

Last week Shiraz shared a section from Krista’s energetic conversation with Mary Doria Russell discussing the meaning and influence of music in Russell’s writing. He also wrote about  the Golden Record, a phonograph record that was included on the two Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977, with the hope of making contact with another alien species. Mitch, our senior producer, collected a few audio samples from the Golden Record and put together a beautiful sound collage that was included in the program, and which you can listen to above.

The Golden Record itself contains quite a range of scenes from Earth, not only in its audio recordings but also in the included 122 images (the record case includes instructions for how to play both, explained here). The audio contents of the record include greetings in 55 different languages, 27 examples of music from around the world (not available for download, but you can still listen to them here), and a selection of “The Sounds of Earth.” Also included are messages from Kurt Waldheim, the U.N. Secretary-General at the time, and U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

Carl Sagan, the director of the Golden Record project, said that “the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” His statement hints at an understanding of this endeavor that’s not only useful for extraterrestrial species, but also as an opportunity for introspection. The contents of the Golden Record serve as a time capsule, allowing us to examine which aspects of its content still seem universally human, and which may already seem outdated or consequential.

I can’t help but wonder how this message might have changed now — and how both its form and content might be different. What new art forms might it include now? What images, or perhaps videos? Would it be a Golden DVD, a Golden Hard Drive? Let’s hear your thoughts on what might belong in a “message in a bottle” from Earth, circa 2009.

Ad Astra Per Aspera is a Latin phrase recorded in morse code on the Golden Record. It translates as “through hardships to the stars.”


Share Your Reflection

Filtered HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><span><div><img><!-->
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Embed content by wrapping a supported URL in [embed] … [/embed].

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Reflections

I quite approve of discussing the Golden Record, and other ways of trying to communicate with any extraterrestrial species. As Carl Sagan explained, it is a powerful opportunity for self-examination. There is, however, one subtlety that you did not note above, or during your very well-presented segment on the show. The Golden Record is not the best way we are making our presence known to the universe. Radio emission, including the show as broadcast by NPR, constantly leak into space. For the last forty years, there have been some radio channels where the Earth outshines the Sun. As part of my graduate studies, I have used the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico as a transmitter that could be detected at the other end of the galaxy, if anyone happens to be in the path of the signal.

Arecibo is of course more often used as receiver, and the SETI program is quite vital in real life as well as in fiction such as Dr. Russell's (although they have not yet found a signal, a paradox noted as early as 1950 by Enrico Fermi). But Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute informs me that the current leakage radiation from the Earth would barely be detected by Arecibo if it were coming from Alpha Centauri, which is the closest star. The most effective message to the stars would be to make a powerful transmitter that transmits in all directions and lasts for many centuries.

Such a long-term project would necessarily become the focus of religious and ethical debates. I personally like the idea, but I am biased by being trained as a radio astronomer. I would like to know the thoughts of others on if it is a good idea to make such a radio beacon.

I'm a pragmatist in some ways and like the idea of reaching out in all directions. Are there any projects in place that currently do anything like this? I am intrigued by your mention of religious and ethical debates about such a project. What discussions are taking place within your scientific communities about such an endeavor?

First, I must apologize for the typos in my post above, especialy confusing NPR and
American Public Media. I also apologize if the following is too verbose.

There has been no large-scale effort to build a beacon. SETI has focused on looking for transmissions. The exceptions are either incidental, such as the radar work at Arecibo, or intended more as a "message to back here", as Sagan described the Voyager record. The Cosmic Call Project shows the latter - their signals reach only a few stars, and last only hours.

The problem is the unknown distance to any aliens. At a minimum, aliens at all similar to us are at least four and a half lightyears away (at Alpha Centauri). Any reply arrives at least a decade after a radio signal goes out. Given arbitrary values for how often life occurs on other planets, how often intelligences develop and build radios, and how long they use them, we can estimate the distance as anything from four and a half lightyears to infinity, the latter where we are alone in the universe. This analysis was developed by Frank Drake, and is a favorite of astronomers. Typical estimates are several hundred to a few thousand lightyears, so that a beacon has no effects that we can know about for centuries. One astronomer called SETI "the archeology of the future".

There _have_ been engineering studies of beacons, especially by the SETI Institute (www.seti.org). Since I think in terms of numbers: for the equivalent of 100 million US dollars, we could build a beacon to reach 300 million stars, last for 1000 years without human intervention and transmit the equivalent of a single book or a constantly tended and repaired beacon that transmits the information contained in a thousand books over the same volume.

In discussions between astronomers, engineers, and members of the public, the first ethical question is "should a beacon be built?". I've heard arguments that "we are alone, so we don't need to talk", although I do not believe that myself. Another argument, perhaps based on _The War of the Worlds_, is "be quiet and the aliens won't invade". Invading a planet lightyears away is probably more trouble than it's worth, but this idea can't be discarded entirely either. An economic argument derived from the long timescale is "a beacon is a waste of resources", although when compared to some projects, 100 million is not large.

Given agreement that a beacon be built, there are more arguments. If the beacon needs people to maintain it, is there an institution to sustain them for a thousand years? Only religion and some philosophies work on such large timescales in human society.

You have asked what information should be included in the message sent by the beacon. That is a very large question, and probably generates the most debate. There are entire books of argument from when Sagan's team was assembling the Record. But before that, how can we establish a common language with someone we have never met? We can use mathematics and physics as a Rosetta Stone: start with arithmetic and work up through chemistry to biology and eventually culture and philosophy. But the details are complex, including linguistic theories of grammar and the extent to which we and any alien experience the universe the same way. All of this happens before we reach the types of questions asked by Dr. Russell.

Some other sources discussing the ethics and philosophy of SETI:

As you note above, Carl Sagan was the grandmaster of this field, both in non-fiction and fictional works. His largest discussion, the novel Contact, was developed into a movie which could not include all of the ideas.

The SETI Institute operates the largest current SETI survey, and as I described above, has considered the design of a beacon. In particular, Jill Tarter, their director of research, is active in considering the ethical aspects. Dr. Tarter was Sagan's inspiration for the heroine of the Contact story.

Send more Chuck Berry!