The golden record: a love story

This is what I see: a bright golden disk strapped to the outside of a bright white vessel, hurtling through the thinness of the heliosphere and the roar of the solar winds and the weirdness of intergalactic plasma, the gooey space between the stars. This is what I see: a bright golden long-playing record with its own stylus attached for some future space alien to slip onto his multidimensional home stereo and spin the tracks, a funky far-out groove, 21 billion kilometres away and moving further all the time.

It’s fashionable today to despair of humanity, to wring our hands and be sleepless and anxious and say that we’re only getting worse, we’re irredeemable, a parasite destroying its host, a bad idea whose time is up. One reason for this is proximity. When our hairy ancestors (I mean the early hominids, not the Greeks) picked their way nervously through long-ago forests and heard a rustle in the undergrowth, they were wired for proximity: the closer the rustle, the bigger the fright. On the savanna, a far-off predator jolts less adrenaline than one nearby. Today we still have the wiring but everything is nearby. All the bad news in the world is right there on your phone, in your pocket, close to your heart, all the time. A shooting in Vegas, a flood in Bangladesh, Trump, North Korea, the Springbok defensive system, it’s all rustling just as far away as the length of your arm holding the screen. Your brain sort of knows it’s distant but your body doesn’t. Day in, day out, the proximity of the world’s worst news is ruining us.

I like to think about the opposite of proximity, the human-made object furthest away: Voyager 1, launched forty years ago last month, traveling 17 kilometres per second ever since, visiting the giant outer planets then leaving our solar system and heading for the breathless mysteries beyond all horizons.

On board Voyager is the golden record, a 12-inch gold-plated copper phonograph disc bearing sounds and images selected by a six-person committee chaired by Carl Sagan to carry a picture of humanity out into the cosmos for whoever might care to know. For 1000 million years the Voyagers will fly towards the expanding outside, bearing this snapshot, this Noah’s Ark of us, and here’s what I love: it’s all good.

Earth in 1977 was no better than in 2017 – demonstrably, its prospects seemed far worse – but Sagan decided to preserve only the best side of humanity. As well as birdsong and whale cries and the sound of the surf, the golden record contains Mozart and Bach and Beethoven, blues ballads, panpipes from the Solomon Islands, music from the Mohi of Benin and the Ituri rainforest of Zaire, greetings in 55 languages, a man laughing, the sound of a kiss, a mother’s first words to her new-born baby, Chuck Berry singing “Johnny B. Goode”.

(Sagan also wanted to include The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun”, but EMI, perhaps fearing some kind of Martian copyright piracy, refused permission. In a Saturday Night Live sketch from 1978, aliens find the golden record and beam to Earth a four-word reply: “Send more Chuck Berry”.)

The record also contains a more speculative message. Reasoning that some future civilization may have figured out a way to translate it, they converted into sound an hour-long EEG of the brainwaves of Ann Druyan, the creative director of the Interstellar Message Project. The idea was that during the EEG she would recite poetry and meditate upon philosophy and the problems confronting the world, but there was a problem. The more she tried to concentrate on her task, the more her mind kept wandering and wondering, the more it kept turning its face to the sun and bathing in the light of a greater mystery: she was in love.

Two days before the EEG, she and Carl Sagan had confessed to each other for the first time that they were in love. It wasn’t easy – he was married, she was engaged – but this is what I love about it: the golden record didn’t just store humanity wearing its most perfect public face, it encoded us at our messiest and most conflicted and complicated, it preserved us being human and flawed and beautiful and in love. We are humans, and we can exceed ourselves and fall short of ourselves and those two things cannot be separated from each other. We are humans, splendidly human, and together we are extraordinary.

Times, 5 October 2017