Saturday, June 19, 2010


Then, at last, completing their long good-bye to the Solar System, broken free of the gravitational shackles that once bound them to the Sun, the Voyagers will make for the open sea of interstellar space. only then will Phase Two of their mission begin.

Their radio transmitters long dead, the spacecraft will wander for ages in the calm, cold interstellar blackness-where there is almost nothing to erode them. Once out of the Solar System, they will remain intact for a billion years or more, as they circumnavigate the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

We do not know whether there are other space-faring civilizations in the Milky Way. If they do exist, we do not know how abundant they are, much less where they are. But there is at least a chance that sometime in the remote future one of the Voyagers will be intercepted and examined by an alien craft.

Accordingly, as each Voyager left Earth for the planets and the stars, it carried with it a golden phonograph record encased in a golden, mirrored jacket containing, among other things; greetings in 59 human languages and one whale language; a 12-minute sound essay including a kiss, a baby's cry, and an EEG record of the meditations of a young woman in love; 116 encoded pictures, on our science, our civilization, and ourselves; and 90 minutes of the Earth's greatest hits-Eastern and Western, classical and folk, including a Navajo night chant, a Japanese shakuhachi piece, a Pygmy girl's initiation song, a Peruvian wedding song, a 3,000-year-old composition for the ch'in called "Flowing Streams," Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Stravinsky, Louis Armstrong, Blind Willie Johnson, and Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode."

Space is nearly empty. There is virtually no chance that one of the Voyagers will ever enter another solar system-and this is true even if every star in the sky is accompanied by planets. The instructions on the record jackets, written in what we believe to be readily comprehensible scientific hieroglyphics, can be read, and the contents of the records understood, only if alien beings, somewhere in the remote future, find Voyager in the depths of interstellar space. Since both Voyagers will circle the center of the Milky Way Galaxy essentially forever, there is plenty of time for the records to be found-if there's anyone out there to do the finding. We cannot know how much of the records they would understand. Surely the greetings will be incomprehensible, but their intent may not be. (We thought it would be impolite not to say hello.) The hypothetical aliens are bound to be very different from us-independently evolved on another world. Are we really sure they could understand anything at all of our message? Every time I feel these concerns stirring, though, I reassure myself. Whatever the incomprehensibilities of the Voyager record, any alien ship that finds it will have another standard by which to judge us. Each Voyager is itself a message. In their exploratory intent, in the lofty ambition of their objectives, in their utter lack of intent to do harm, and in the brilliance of their design and performance, these robots speak eloquently for us.

But being much more advanced scientists and engineers than we-otherwise they would never be able to find and retrieve the small, silent spacecraft in interstellar space-perhaps the aliens would have no difficulty understanding what is encoded on these golden records. Perhaps they would recognize the tentativeness of our society, the mismatch between our technology and our wisdom. Have we destroyed ourselves since launching Voyager, they might wonder, or have we gone on to greater things?

Or perhaps the records will never be intercepted. Perhaps no one in five billion years will ever come upon them. Five billion years is a long time. In five billion years, all humans will have become extinct or evolved into other beings, none of our artifacts will have survived on Earth, the continents will have become unrecognizably altered or destroyed, and the evolution of the Sun will have burned the Earth to a crisp or reduced it to a whirl of atoms. Far from home, untouched by these remote events, the Voyagers, bearing the memories of a world that is no more, will fly on.

Carl Sagan in Pale Blue Dot

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