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The Golden Record
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Officially, it was the Voyager Interstellar Record. The record’s producer later called it “The Mix Tape of the Gods.” It was also a time capsule and a message in a bottle—if that bottle was an 815-kg (1,797-lb) hunk of metal hurtling through space away from our solar system.
The so-called Golden Record was humanity’s letter to the universe explaining who we are and where we come from. The two originals left Earth in 1977, accompanying the Voyager spacecraft on their mission to the outer planets and beyond. For a long time, not many Earthlings had the chance to enjoy it: NASA refused to give a copy even to the project’s mastermind, Carl Sagan. Then, as the Golden Record neared its 40th anniversary, a Kickstarter campaign successfully raised the funds to deliver the message back to humankind.
Just what was on the Golden Record? Let’s drop the needle.
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In 1972, Carl Sagan, an astronomer with a deep interest in the possibility of life on other planets, pitched the idea of including a message to extraterrestrials inside the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, which came to be known as the Pioneer Plaque. Four years later, as NASA prepared to launch the twin Voyager spacecraft, Sagan again suggested sending a message, and eventually settled on a record. He assembled a team of scientists and artists who painstakingly rounded up a series of images, sounds, and songs to represent humanity to the universe.
Sagan’s then-wife, Linda Salzman Sagan, recorded greetings from members of the community near the couple’s home in Ithaca, NY, as well as from United Nations delegates. Artist Jon Lomberg collected images, embedded electronically on the record—an astronaut in space, Africans laying bricks, a diagram explaining continental drift, Ansel Adams landscapes, the Taj Mahal, and pages from great books, including one from Isaac Newton’s System of the World “where the means of launching an object into orbit is described for the very first time.” Ann Druyan’s “Sounds of Earth” essay captured an aural snapshot of our world. Jimmy Carter, the US president at the time, sent a written message of hope and goodwill.
The team actively decided not to include any of humanity’s dark side, like war, bombs, or genocide. In an unfortunate twist, the record opens with a greeting from Kurt Waldheim, then-secretary general of the United Nations, who was later revealed to be an ex-Nazi.
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<6 months: Time the team had to put together the Golden Record
1 kg (2.2 lbs): Total weight allowance for the Golden Record
115: Images on the record
55: Languages represented in the recorded greetings
16⅔ rpm: Speed at which the Golden Record was recorded, instead of the standard 33⅓ rpm
90 minutes: Playback time of the Golden Record’s music portion, more than triple the time it would have been if it had been recorded at standard speed
13.8 billion miles: Current distance from Earth of the Golden Record on Voyager 1
1 billion years: Time Golden Records should last in space
$1.36 million: Amount raised by a 2016 Kickstarter campaign to release a new recording of the Golden Record
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Carl Sagan Astronomer who led the project
Linda Salzman Sagan Artist and writer who recorded the human greetings and drew the human figures etched on it; she later wrote episodes of the soap operas Knots Landing and General Hospital
Timothy Ferris Science journalist and author; produced the record
Ann Druyan Creative director of the record; Ferris’s fiancée at the time, she co-created the TV documentary Cosmos with Sagan and became his third wife in 1981
Jimmy Iovine Engineer recommended by John Lennon (who was unable to participate in the project because of tax complications); gained fame as a producer, record-company executive, and Beats by Dre co-founder
Frank Drake Astronomer and “father of SETI” (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence); technical director of the record
Jon Lomberg Space artist who chose the photographs as the record’s designer
Alan Lomax Ethnomusicologist who assisted in song selection for the record
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“Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time.”
“We greet you, great ones. We wish you longevity.”
“Hello to the residents of far skies.”
“Dear Turkish-speaking friends, may the honors of the morning be upon your heads.”
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The record’s 12-minute audio essay of natural sounds tells the history of Earth. It starts with the “music of the spheres,” an audio representation of the changing orbital velocities of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and Jupiter based on equations by Johannes Kepler. Next comes the formation of our planet, represented by volcanoes, earthquakes, thunderstorms, and bubbling mud, and the formation of the oceans, heard in wind, rain, and surf sounds. A series of animal sounds aurally illustrates the rise of life.
The history of humans begins with footsteps, heartbeats, and laughter, followed by fire, speech, tools, and dogs. The dawn of the modern era is announced with the Morse code message “Ad astra per aspera” (“To the stars through hard work”). It’s followed by sounds of transportation—ships, jet airplanes, and rockets. The section ends with the sounds of a kiss, a mother and child, an EEG of Ann Druyan’s brain waves, and a pulsar.
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The cover image for the Golden Record provides extraterrestrials with a helpful guide for playing the audio portion with an included stylus, and for reconstructing the images encoded in the record. It also contains a map to our solar system and a method for measuring approximately how long ago the message was sent.
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The team spent a long time discussing which music to include on the record, bringing in omnivorous ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax when the initial selections hewed too closely to the Western canon. The 27 selections that made the cut range from traditional folk songs to classical standards to American blues. And the track list holds up: Ozma Records’ 2017 release of the Golden Record won a Grammy for Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package.
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If alien lifeforms ever find the Golden Record, there’s no guarantee that the sounds it contains will make any sense to them. Their senses might be tuned to a different frequency than ours, or they might not have ears at all. However, the odds are good that any extraterrestrial able to intercept a Voyager spacecraft will understand math, which is why the records’ creators sacrificed some musical diversity to include three compositions by J.S. Bach and two by Ludwig van Beethoven.
“Even they could learn from the music by applying mathematics, which really does seem to be the universal language that music is sometimes said to be,” record producer Timothy Ferris wrote in the New Yorker in 2017. “They’d look for symmetries—repetitions, inversions, mirror images, and other self-similarities—within or between compositions. We sought to facilitate the process by proffering Bach, whose works are full of symmetry, and Beethoven, who championed Bach’s music and borrowed from it.”
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Carl Sagan thought Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” was “awful” when he first heard it (although he would go on to defend its selection for the record). The rockstar later performed at the 1989 NASA party celebrating Voyager 2’s fly-by of Neptune.
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A year after the Voyager launched, Carl Sagan and a few of his colleagues wrote about the experience of putting together the Golden Record, including details on how the Earth sounds and voice greetings were sourced, in the collection of essays Murmurs of Earth. You might have more luck getting your hands on Jonathan Scott’s The Vinyl Frontier: The Story of the Voyager Golden Record, a 2019 book based on interviews with the project team members that gets at the gritty details of the process—and Sagan’s love affair with Ann Druyan.
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