Sunday, May 29, 2011

To No One in Particular

The gold records.
            “May all be well,” begins an 8-track recording commissioned by NASA in the late-70’s. “Greetings to you, whoever you are,” the message continues, suddenly in Greek. Someone says, “Let there be peace everywhere,” in Bengali and then, in Chinese—“Have you eaten?”
            And so on, fifty-five times. It was 1977, and NASA planned to send its two Voyager spacecraft toward interstellar space—the void between stars, not planets—and they began wondering what the unmanned pods might meet. Spaceman Carl Sagan helped convince them to send along human artifacts and greetings. “[A] Bottle in the cosmic ocean,” he called it enthusiastically. Both vehicles were loaded with two gold-plated records, and scientists hope that whoever’s out there will know how to play them.
John Hersey's rendition of the
Voyager pods.

            The recordings begin with multi-lingual greetings, and then play sounds from nature, human laughter and the noise of engines and rockets. Extraterrestrials may listen to thunder and birdsong, look at photos of the Great Wall and see demonstrations of eating and drinking (the latter is a picture a young man pouring water into his mouth from a large pitcher).
And then, of course, there’s the music. Bach appears three times, beginning with his Brandenburg concerto. Louis Armstrong plays “Melancholy Blues,” and Chuck Berry plays “Johnny B. Goode.” The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth is there, as are Senegalese drumming and Peruvian wedding music. There’s also Georgian folk music, pygmy girls from Zaire, and Australian aboriginal singing. Sagan wanted to include the Beatles’ song “Here Comes the Sun,” but EMI wouldn’t allow it.
Technicians install the disks on the side of Voyager 1.
The Voyager pods left earth toward the end of summer in 1977, and won’t come near another star for close to 40,000 years. Voyager 1 is now at the edge of our solar system, flying where the solar winds from our sun begin to turn back and flow sideways. It still sends and receives transmissions, and technicians guess the pods will be able to contact home through the 20’s. By then Voyager 1 should be all alone, flying with its old records through interstellar space. We have so much more than we did in 1977. But for Voyager 1 and 2 there are still just a few technicians, sitting in Barstow and Madrid, sending the occasional, lonely radio message.
            President Jimmy Carter included a personal message, fitting with the imaginative aesthetic of the time capsule. “We are trying to survive our time so we may live into yours” he says to no one in particular. “We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of Galactic Civilizations.”
There we are.
            Since leaving earth, the Voyagers have sent back some very interesting pictures from so far away. Perhaps the most famous, Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot," shows the earth as a small speck, taken from approximately 3.8 billions miles. They have also detailed Saturn, Jupiter, and both of their larger moon systems.
            In that summer before the launch Sagan fell in love with a friend, Ann Druyan. It was unexpected, they said, but they weren’t surprised. “I’ve been waiting ten years for this!” he supposedly yelled over the phone. After talking about it one night, they decided to include one more recording.
            Druyan spent one morning in a hospital in New York City, where doctors recorded her brain waves. “I had a one-hour mental itinerary of the information I wished to convey,” she writes in Sagan’s book, Billions and Billions. “To the best of my abilities I tried to think something of the history of ideas and human social organization.”
            She thought about the history of life on earth, from the time before us according to our scattered ideas to our time now, which for her was a small room with a window overlooking a busy street in New York. She thought about human life and the violence and poverty that hurt so many people, and about the great leaders of history and the people most important to her. “Toward the end,” she writes, “I permitted myself a personal statement of what it was like to fall in love.”
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan.
It’s possible that the electrical impulses of her brain may be converted back into thoughts, whenever or if ever the contents are ruffled through by extraterrestrials. Sagan died in 1996. Ann says that whenever she feels down, she thinks about those small gold disks, floating out to sea at 35,000 miles an hour.

1 comment:

  1. One of the most beautiful blog entries i have read. Thank You.

    To Carl & Ann