‘The ultimate mix tape of humanity’ turns 40
In 1977, NASA sent a groundbreaking object into space. The Golden Record was a compilation of sounds from Earth designed to teach aliens about us. Four decades on, it still fascinates us…
In the summer of 1977, as the world was discovering Star Wars, a team of researchers in New York were having their own dreams about space. They had a plan: to send a vinyl disc featuring snippets of human culture into outer space, to be picked up by aliens a million — or even a billion — years hence.
Forty years on, the Golden Record has not even come close to other life forms. Back on Earth, however, humans are properly hearing it at last.
The trigger for this project was the Voyager programme. That summer, NASA launched two probes to study the outer solar system. The probes then continued toward interstellar space: Voyager 1 entered it in 2012, and Voyager 2 will soon follow. Their fate is to drift through the galaxy forever.
Before the launch, the possibility that the probes might be intercepted by another civilisation fired the imagination of Carl Sagan, a famous American astronomer. He had already helped send basic messages about humanity into space, but this time he was more ambitious.
He proposed a record that would include a wide variety of speech, music and noises from Earth. A gold-plated copy would be stashed on each probe, alongside instructions on how to play it and how to locate our planet. With luck, benevolent aliens would find it and learn about us.
NASA agreed. Over a few months, Sagan’s team gathered clips of Bach, blues and folk music from around the world. The vinyl also contained whale song, the sound of wind, Morse code, greetings in 55 languages, the recorded brainwaves of Sagan’s fiancé, and much more.
It was “the ultimate mix tape of the human experience,” as one journalist put it.
But humans did not get to hear it right away. NASA kept its spare copies private; even Sagan did not receive one. Yet public interest grew, and parts of the record ended up online. A CD came out in 1992.
Then, last year, two producers launched a Kickstarter campaign to finance a proper vinyl edition for the 40th anniversary. Money poured in. Now, for $98, you can finally hear the Golden Record as it was intended.
A matter of record
“That said, the project is sure to fail,” say some. The probes are very unlikely to reach aliens — they will not pass close to a star system that could contain life for another 40,000 years. Even if the Golden Record is picked up, the aliens may not understand (or enjoy) it. To expect otherwise is arrogant, or perhaps just naïve.
“You’re missing the point,” reply others. The record was officially made for aliens, but in reality it was meant for us. It is a fun and original way of asking the question: what defines us as humans? The fact that we have obsessed and argued over it for decades proves that it is a success.
- Is it a good idea to try to inform aliens of our whereabouts?
- Is it possible to create an accurate representation of humanity on a single record?
- Listen to the excerpt of the Golden Record in Become An Expert. Try to guess where each snippet of sound/music comes from. (There is a tracklist on the page.)
- Imagine you are in charge of creating a new Golden Record. In groups, decide what you will put on it. Before starting, ask yourselves: what is the aim of this record?
Some People Say...
“We hope someday … to join a community of galactic civilisations.”— From then-President Jimmy Carter’s letter included onboard the Voyager probes
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- The Voyager probes are currently almost 13 billion and 11 billion miles away; Voyager 1 is the first man-made object to leave our solar system. Eventually, their power generators will die and they will become unable to take scientific measurements. After that, they will simply drift. The Golden Records are sealed in aluminium cases, and are expected to remain usable for over a billion years.
- What do we not know?
- Whether the probes will end up in alien hands, or indeed whether extraterrestrial life exists at all. In 1977, scientists were not even sure whether planets existed outside our solar system. Now they know that planets are common in our galaxy, and are trying to approximate how many of them contain life. Estimates range from one (just us) to many millions.
- Voyager 2 set off on August 20th; Voyager 1 followed on September 5th.
- Interstellar space
- The space between star systems in our galaxy. Once you leave our solar system and you can no longer feel the solar wind from our sun, you have gone interstellar.
- Carl Sagan
- Sagan found fame with his popular books on science and TV series Cosmos (1980), which was watched by hundreds of millions worldwide. He was also a respected researcher.
- Basic messages
- For instance, in 1972 and 1973 NASA launched the Pioneer probes. They contained plaques, co-created by Sagan, which featured engravings of a man and a woman, as well as information about Earth’s location.
- Much more
- The team also encoded 115 images into the vinyl, including mathematical equations, photos of our solar system’s planets and snaps of everyday life on Earth. See NASA’s page in Become An Expert.
- The record has been split over three vinyl discs. The set also includes a book containing the vinyl’s images (see above).