At this very instant, a record made of gold and copper is hurtling through space, carrying among its grooves tunes from the likes of Bach, Chuck Berry and Louis Armstrong.
The Golden Record, as it’s called, was launched 40 years ago with the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft with the hopes that one day, aliens will be able to plunk the needle on the album and get a glimmer of understanding about life on Earth in 1977.
Mike Dunlavy is tackling a slightly less ambitious project.
The lab technician at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax has started a podcast to shine a spotlight on the Golden Record and explore its contents with a more earthly audience in mind.
“It seemed like there was this opening for us to dig in, do some research and present that information in hopefully an interesting and entertaining way,” said Dunlavy, who has a PhD in physics.
Earth’s MixTape will examine each cultural artifact contained on the record, which includes not just music, but also photos, images, a montage of daily sounds and recorded greetings in 55 languages.
Dunlavy says the podcast will look at “what the music and photos are, where they came from, how significant they are” and whether they were good choices.
Selections from around the world
For the most part, Dunlavy says, the selections were good.
“They only had about six or seven months to choose the material, research it, get the copyrights, figure out how to put it onto a record, and construct the record, and then bolt the record to the Voyager for launch,” he said. “So it was a huge project for the short amount of time they had to do it.”
The music contains samples from around the world, including bagpipes from Azerbaijan, panpipes from Solomon Islands and a girls’ initiation song from Congo, which was known as Zaire when the record was made.
The photos include the Earth and other planets in our solar system, an astronaut, famous buildings, traffic, a supermarket, and a photo of a woman licking an ice cream cone, a man eating a sandwich and another man drinking water.
Other images include depictions of human sex organs, conception and fetal development, as well as a map of the world, the structure of DNA and mathematical and chemical definitions.
Sounds on the album include thunder, crickets, a chimpanzee, a heartbeat and a train, and greetings range from the Turkish equivalent of “Dear Turkish-speaking friends, may the honours of the morning be upon your heads” to “Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time,” spoken in the Amoy dialect of Chinese.
Product of its time
Dunlavy said the podcast will sometimes be a critical perspective on the selections, made by a NASA committee with some input from other experts.
“To us it felt like the kind of project that should have had a much larger set of contributors,” he said. “It certainly would not be something I would feel comfortable doing, to take it upon myself to represent all humanity with just a couple of my friends.”
While a modern audience may easily identify gaps and problems with the inclusions on the Golden Record, Dunlavy said it was a product of its time.
“If we sat down to do that right now and put together this collection that we thought was great, in 40 years I’m sure there would be issues.”
An alien audience?
So, what are the chances the record will ever be heard by aliens? Of course, no one knows for sure. But Dunlavy has a guess.
“There’s no way this will ever be found by anyone or anything — any aliens, ‘outer space people’ as we call them on the podcast, the OSPs — it won’t be found for thousands and thousands and tens of thousands of years.”
Dunlavy points out a number of potential obstacles — that aliens may not exist, that the probe and the record won’t survive the elements, that whoever finds it won’t be able to play or understand it.
“I would like to think that eventually someone will find it, something will find it and get something out of it,” he said. “That would be awfully nice. But it will be far past our lifetimes.”