While finding any extraterrestrial life at all would be a monumental event, many astronomers have carefully considered an even more incredible option: What would it mean if we found intelligent life on another planet? This question raises others, like: How do we define intelligence? How would we communicate with another world beings? Would the Golden Records, as a mode of communication, be successful?
The Golden Records
We know what our own attempts to communicate with intelligent extraterrestrial life look like. Some have taken the form of directed messages or analog creations traveling at a relative snail’s pace.
The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts, launched in 1977, carried the famous Golden Records on board. Carl Sagan, who led the NASA committee that assembled the records, described them as a sort of message in a bottle, hurled into the interstellar ocean in the hopes that space-faring travelers might one day pick it up.
The record cover was etched with a diagram explaining how to play it. On the upper left, the cover pictorially guided the imagined recipient through building a phonograph and stylus, with the stylus illustrated in the position required to play the record from the beginning. Binary numbers explain the rotation rate of the record and how long the record will take to play.
On the right, the cover explains how to assemble pictures from the data on the record, which were recorded in binary numerical form. Finally, on the lower left is a map to Earth, showing our position relative to 14 pulsars, the same beacon-like radio-emitting stars discovered by Jocelyn Bell. An extraterrestrial civilization with its own radio telescopes should be able to spot these pulsars, follow the map, and drop by to let us know they got our message.
Storing pictures, Voices, and Music
The record itself included everything from pictures stored in binary numerical form to recordings of voices and music from civilizations all over Earth. More than 100 pictures showed planets in our solar system, graphical summaries of key scientific concepts, anatomical diagrams, and photographs of life on Earth showing everything from natural wonders to supermarkets.
The audio included spoken greetings in 55 human languages and sounds of Earth ranging from thunder to rain to whale songs. It also includes 90 minutes of music from all over the world, ranging from Congolese folk music to Louis Armstrong to a selection from Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
The record even included an hour-long recording of the brainwaves of Ann Druyan, who would later go on to marry Carl Sagan, as she thought about Earth’s history, life forms, trials, tribulations, and even the human experience of falling in love.
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Signals Serving as Beacons
The Voyager spacecrafts don’t move quickly—it took them decades just to leave our solar system—but the message they carry is nevertheless headed into the unknown in the hopes that someone might one day receive it.
Other signals for distant civilizations get sent out from Earth every day. Radio signals produced here on Earth are now powerful enough to travel out into the universe on their own, spreading outward in steady waves at the speed of light. One by one these signals are reaching nearby exoplanets and serving as beacons; if there’s anyone there and listening it should be pretty clear that there’s some intelligent life here on Earth.
Ultimate Scientific Achievement
Understandably, in our search for life on other planets, it’s easy to get sceptical. Should we devote scientific resources to SETI? Is it worth it? Questions like these plague the scientific community often. There are plenty of people—even plenty of scientists—who think that extraterrestrial intelligence is simply too rare, too sparse, or too fanciful to be worth much time and money.
However, imagining the alternative—the day when we do detect signs of extraterrestrial intelligence—is impossibly compelling, and would, without a doubt, represent the most astonishing scientific discovery of all time.
This ultimate scientific achievement—discovering life elsewhere in the universe—would be a testimony to our long cascade of astronomical discoveries and innovations. Our search for extraterrestrial intelligence depends on our ability to find other habitable worlds, which in turn depends on robust efforts aimed at finding exoplanets. Even finding signs of tiny microbes, or fledgling ecosystems, or alien plants on other planets would be nothing short of groundbreaking!
With the heroes of astronomy, both today and tomorrow, constantly pushing forward to pursue new discoveries in all of these areas- testing new theories, and making groundbreaking new technological advances that shape our ability to observe and interpret the cosmos- this fantasy might just one day, turn into a scientific reality.
Common Questions about the Voyager Golden Records
The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts, launched in 1977, carried the famous Golden Records on board.
Carl Sagan, who led the NASA committee that assembled the Golden Records, described them as a sort of message in a bottle, hurled into the interstellar ocean in the hopes that space-faring travelers might one day pick it up.
The Golden Records itself included everything from pictures stored in binary numerical form to recordings of voices and music from civilizations all over Earth. More than 100 pictures showed planets in our solar system, graphical summaries of key scientific concepts, anatomical diagrams, and photographs of life on Earth showing everything from natural wonders to supermarkets.