Reflections on Voyager and the Golden Record: America’s Greatest Achievement

By Michael W. Harris

The Voyager Golden Record seems to float into and out of my life and consciousness at the most random of times. Recently, I encountered it when I was finally reading a New York Times article by Chuck Klosterman from May about who will be the one rock and roller remembered when all of us are but “dust in the wind.”

Klosterman mentions Berry at the end of his article and frames it in the context of Berry’s inclusion on the Golden Record affixed to the Voyager probes now traversing the dark of interstellar space. Like Klosterman, I feel like there is no better distillation of what rock and roll is and was than Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Ask any former rock history student of mine and they can (hopefully) tell you that I share most of Klosterman’s reasons for his selection of Berry.

golden_record
The Golden Record. The opposite side contains instructions on how to play it.

As a child who was both a musician and a space buff, I was always aware of the Golden Record as a thing, but it wasn’t until I started listening to Radiolab that I really started to think about what it represented. In a 2007 episode called “Space,” Radiolab talks to Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow and one of the leaders of the Voyager Interstellar Message Project, about the record and her love story with Sagan. The story was about not only the record, but also about how Ann and Carl met and fell in love while working on the project. Encountering this podcast fairly early in my PhD career—I think I started listening to Radiolab around 2009 or so—really started me thinking more seriously and philosophically about music’s place in our culture and history. And even more so about what the Golden Record represents.

The record contains more than just music, though. It is a sonic (and visual) portrait of Earth. It has music from all over the globe, greetings in over fifty languages, sounds of nature, and even photographs. And it also includes a recording of the brainwaves of Ann Druyan, right as she and Carl were falling in love.

But what is remarkable about the record is that while it was created by Americans for inclusion on an American probe built and launched by America’s national space agency, NASA, those involved on the project worked tirelessly to make sure that it was truly a representation of EARTH. You have the music and languages of two of America’s Cold War adversaries represented, Russia and China, along with music from a Native American tribe. There is a printed greeting by Jimmy Carter, then President of the United States, along with an audio greeting, in English, by then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim. It was an American project with a global focus.

What I find so wonderful and surprising about the Golden Record as assembled by Sagan and the others on the project, is the inclusivity of their thinking. They wanted it to be a record of the entire planet. It was an act of hope. It represented an aspirational desire that maybe we can one day be a unified planet that celebrates our diversity and truly draws strength from it, rather than uses it as a reason to tear down each other or otherwise exclude someone from a society. It was a desire that maybe by presenting that view of ourselves to the cosmos that we can one day live up to it.

This was a recurring theme in Sagan and Druyan’s work (especially Cosmos), and it is why I consider Sagan among my “Holy Trinity” of modern writer-philosophers who have had the most influence on the development of my own thinking and worldview. For those who are wondering, the other two are Douglas Adams (of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, because of his irreverent and humorous view of humanity, always keeping us humble) and Kurt Vonnegut (for his sharp, black comedy, which again puts humanity in our place).

Humility and humbleness before our fellow human is something that is severely lacking, and I am just as guilty of this as are many others. I have my own staunch opinions (I am a liberal progressive with shades of socialism and secular humanism), and I can sometimes be blinded by them when I engage with people I disagree with. But if we can all take a step back and see the long view of both human history and our future, hopefully we can begin to see that our differences don’t really amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. That we need to come together and create a society that is greater than all of our nation states put together which can help guide our world toward the future we need.

The Original Pale Blue Dot
The Original Pale Blue Dot

Perhaps the best distillation of these ideas comes, once again, from Carl Sagan and a photograph taken on 14 February 1990 by Voyager I as both it and the Golden Record flew past the orbit of Pluto. Known popularly as the Pale Blue Dot photograph, it is a photo that shows the Earth as a distant speck of light, a “mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam” as Sagan famously said, seen from over 6 billion kilometers away. It a powerful image that really puts our relatively small planet in perspective. Our population may have grown to over 7 billion people, of which 2.6 billion live in India and China alone, but we are still a small and insignificant planet in the vastness of the cosmos. As Douglas Adams put it: “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”

Earth from Cassini
Earth as seen from Cassini

A similar photo was taken by the Cassini probe while in orbit of Saturn, though its distance was a meager 1.5 billion kilometers. However, the juxtaposition of Earth against Saturn’s ring has a certain beauty to it.

No nation is more special than the other. No person more valuable or more important than another. But collectively we are special…at least within our solar system. But when compared against the grand stage of the universe, we begin to see that we are but one small planet. And with that perspective, we have only two options, or views, before us: 1) we are alone and we are the only intelligent life to have arisen in the almost 14 billion year history of the universe, or 2) we are not alone and sometime—maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but hopefully soon—we will discover proof that there are more species out there to have developed intelligence and some form of communication. Either way, what we, as a species, have to do is still the same: come together and start working towards the common good of all people everywhere in the world. That might mean giving up some national sovereignty in order to work towards a common goal. It might mean an European Union style open border policy. It might even mean the creation of the dreaded, and favorite scare tactic of the conspiracy theory crowd, “one world government.”

But why is that such a crazy—and bad—idea? If we can peacefully and democratically unite all people for the common good of ourselves and our home—Spaceship Earth—then why shouldn’t we? It is only logical.

And maybe this weekend, as you are grilling meats, a practice older than our species (which means that it first developed in Africa), and exploding fireworks, first invented by the Chinese, pause and give a thought to how you, me, and the rest of us might take a longer view of humanity. Let you inner Carl Sagan out for a moment and reflect on the bigger picture of where we have been and where we are going. Reflect for just a minute on the Pale Blue Dot and the Golden Record, currently hurtling through interstellar space at nearly 40,000 mph carrying the message of Chuck Berry, Bach, Beethoven, Mangkunegara IV, Bo Ya, the Navajo, and many others, to who or whatever may find it one day in the future.

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