I love the stories of the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft taking their messages from Earth out into universe. Humanity’s farthest and longest-lived spacecraft, Voyager 1 and 2, achieve 40 years of operation and exploration this August and September. Despite their vast distance, they continue to communicate with NASA daily, still probing the final frontier.
Both Pioneers carry a plaque, but the Voyager spacecrafts carry a “phonograph record.” But I have always wondered what an alien finding it would be able to figure out about us. A lot of thought was given to what was included, but could it be understood? How might it be misunderstood?
Just on the basis of technology, if the Voyager’s “Golden Record” dropped into your backyard, could you “play” it? Chances are that you don’t even have the equipment to play a vinyl record any more.
Of course, we always seem to imagine the aliens as being way more advanced than us, so they could figure it out, right?
Besides a turntable and speakers, this record requires the aliens to have ways to hear and see similar to the ways we do those things. A lot of science-fiction tales have not shown us aliens with our ears and eyes. Can they interpret the record by just using their mind?
The Voyager record has a cover illustration and about 90 minutes of audio on the reverse side.
Looking at the cover illustration image of hydrogen and a pulsar map (the same as found on the Pioneer plaques) and important instructions on how to play them. It tells the aliens how to use the included stylus and what rate of rotation the record must be used and the proper waveform of signals generated by the record. These are similar instructions to those we would need to give to a Generation Z kid confronted with a record player.
Let’s assume they get the record to play and they have ears to hear it. What will they think about us when listening to the 50+ greeting messages in different languages? Again, I think of a Gen Z or almost any Earthling hearing 50+ different messages in different languages. Confusion. They might wonder why we don’t all speak in the same way. Or maybe they think all 50 messages are in the same language but are just different creatures speaking.
Then there is the music. I can’t imagine how they would react to hearing Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Are these dancing aliens? I would guess that they might deal better with the Beethoven and Stravinsky without lyrics, though it is doubtful that music developed in the same way out there in the universe.
The record also contains 115 images. If they can decode the first ones, they will have technical data for the reader regarding mathematical definitions, scales and sizes, and information about our location and how to find us. There are images of our Sun and some of the planets in our solar system. Some pretty famous scientists have said that we really shouldn’t be telling them that because we don’t want them to find us.. These scientists are believers in the “aliens are evil” school of thought.
The images seem to me to be the part they might understand. Didn’t they tell me in elementary school that math was a universal language?
Will they interpret the medical and scientific diagrams showing the structure of our DNA and detailed images of human anatomy?
I do think they will be confused by some of the others in this Earthing photo album: people eating, looking through a microscope, on a spacewalk, a string quartet etc. I am actually a bit frightened by how they might interpret a picture of a woman licking an ice cream cone.
Voyager 1 is currently in “Interstellar space” and Voyager 2 is currently in the “Heliosheath” (the outermost layer of the heliosphere).