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Storms, frogs and a kiss: how a group of scientists designed a message from humanity to aliens
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Storms, frogs and a kiss: how a group of scientists designed a message from humanity to aliens

Space objects embody all kinds of contradictions. They’re closely tied to us as our proxies in space, and the people who make or launch them often imprint or project their own emotions and beliefs on to these objects. Yet they no longer remain fully obedient to us, scientifically or symbolically, the further away they get.

Over the past few years I’ve been reading everything I can find about certain objects that humans have launched into outer space. My project was a little wacky: to write fictional stories from the point of view of space objects themselves, whether Starman in his midnight-cherry Roadster, or the International Space Station.

I knew right from the start that I wanted one of the twin Voyager spacecraft to narrate a story. Their glamour is not only derived from the fact that they’re the most distant human-made objects from Earth. It has more to do with the cargo they each carry – the Golden Record – and the intriguing backstory of the small group of humans who decided what should be included in this message to aliens.

Launched in 1977, the Voyager mission was only meant to last four years, with the two spacecraft (V1 and V2) doing flybys of Jupiter and Saturn. But they survived, and explored the outer gas giants in our solar system, and still they kept going. They’re now in interstellar space – a liminal zone where they’re subject to the forces not only of our Sun but other stars. Soon, the last of their scientific instruments will be switched off, and they’ll no longer be able to communicate with us. At that point, they’ll be 22bn kilometres away.

Yet their mission will not end once they can no longer send back data. This is where their true purpose begins: to ferry the Golden Record to intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

The Golden Record was, in essence, a time capsule curated over a few months by the astronomer Carl Sagan and a small team that included his then wife, Linda Salzman Sagan, the music journalist Tim Ferris, and a young writer called Annie Druyan, who was Tim’s fiancee. The two Golden Records were made of copper, and plated with gold. On them were stored about 900 images, samples of music, and human greetings in different languages for aliens. My favourite is this one, which seems friendly but contains a subtle warning: “Hello to everyone. We are happy here and you be happy there.”

As soon as I read about the circumstances under which the Golden Record was created in Keay Davidson’s biography Carl Sagan: A Life, I was intrigued by the story.

Carl hoped that another intelligent life form might one day encounter the Voyagers, play the Record, and find humans to be delightful creatures worth a visit the next time they passed by Earth. In space circles, the Golden Record is spoken of in worshipful tones, as a visionary message in a bottle tossed into the unknown, a profound gesture of hope in the face of the human condition of seeming to be alone in the cosmos.

But I’m not so sure. Can you imagine believing you have the right to design a message from humans to aliens, to create a time capsule to represent humanity for all time? Some might say that it’s still better to send an imperfect message to the future than nothing at all. But what we choose to memorialise is as political and flawed as what we choose to forget.

Carl’s passion for sending messages to the future was ignited as a boy, when his parents took him to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. He’d watched one of the first time capsules in the world get buried beneath Flushing Meadows. Inside this shiny tube were dolls and dollars, cigarettes, hats, seeds, alphabet blocks, all kinds of things – buried for humans to open in the year 6,900.

As Carl and his group got to work on the Golden Record in 1977, there were long debates over whether they should only represent the positive sides to humanity. If they included images and sounds that acknowledged the existence of war, murder, poverty and genocide then was there not a risk that the aliens might think the humans were threatening them? Or that humans were not worth communicating with, given the depths to which they’d sunk in their treatment of one another, and the often bitter misery of life on Earth?

Annie Druyan, whom Carl had asked to be the creative director of the Voyager interstellar message project, was adamant that they had a moral responsibility to include reference on the Golden Record to the more disturbing aspects of our species. She listened to what was believed to be the very first audio ever recorded of human warfare; of a British soldier near the end of the first world war ordering mustard gas shells to be fired at the German trenches, somewhere in France, and then the boom of the discharge. Should it be included?, she must have wondered. It was not.

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I have not met or spoken to Annie, who is in her 70s now (Carl died in 1996), but I feel strongly drawn to her belief that only including happy sounds and images would be a mistake. “If we tried to be anything other than we are, it wouldn’t be very effective … it would be hollow,” she told interviewers in 2023. Any alien civilisation worth communicating with would judge humans harshly not for what they’d done wrong, but for being incapable of owning up to it – for lying about who we really were.

Ultimately, the sounds on the Golden Record are uniformly neutral, unthreatening. Earthquakes, storms, frogs, wolves. The beating of a human heart, footfalls, fire. Tools, cars, planes, a rocket launch. The sound of a kiss – Annie’s fiance, Tim, pecking her on the cheek – a woman whispering to her baby, the radio emissions of a pulsar.

Only the Astronauts by Ceridwen DoveyView image in fullscreen

But after the kiss comes something unintelligible to most humans, let alone to aliens. It’s the sound of Annie’s thoughts, recorded while she was hooked up to an electroencephalogram machine.

In a medical centre in New York she meditated for an hour while connected to the machine. For much of that time, she thought about what it felt like to be living through the cold war, and the terror of a nuclear arms race, and the horrors of poverty and starvation in so many parts of the world. Right at the end of the hour she thought about Carl and “the wonder of love”, about how – two days before – they had agreed they wanted to be together and get married when the timing was right.

This hour of sounds was compressed into one minute of audio, and added to Annie’s audio essay. So really, in the end, Annie did manage to include something much more complicated about humans on the Record. The sound of her thoughts in that electroencephalogram is a live archive not only of her immense joy of being in love, but of fear, sadness and terror of what humans can do to one another on this planet. A half-hidden message to aliens about the extremes of emotion, perhaps more true to what it is to be human than anything else etched into the grooves of the Golden Record.

  • Only the Astronauts by Ceridwen Dovey is out on 7 May through Penguin Random House

Source: theguardian.com