Hidden On Voyager’s Golden Records Are The Ultimate Love Notes

The golden records carried by the Voyager missions have become famous as an effort for humanity to explain ourselves to any aliens who might find them. As well as being our introduction to the universe, they were also a sort of love letter to Earth, a reminder to humanity of what is precious about ourselves and our home. So it’s appropriate that tucked away among the more familiar sounds is a testament to the records’ two leading creators’ relationship.

Space is so big that the chances the Voyager missions will ever be found by aliens is tiny, no matter how long they last. Already the spacecrafts’ power supplies are running low. By the time they drift into the vicinity of any other star system, there will be radio blips to detect them by, so the question of whether aliens would be able to work out how to operate a phonograph is largely moot.

Everyone involved in the project knew this. The message was mostly for humanity, to encourage us to see each ourselves as part of a common species, rather than members of sometimes warring nations, and to remind us what we love about Earth. But in the end, room was found for something much more personal: the brainwaves of one creator thinking about another.

Officially known as the Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Message Project, the Golden Records were an Initiative of Carl Sagan, an advance on the more basic Pioneer plaque he had championed.

“The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space,” Sagan said.  “But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

Ann Druyan was hired as the creative director, tasked with finding the images and music to include, and to try to have at least some of them make sense to minds very different from our own. While Druyan was putting together the possibilities, decisions on the records’ contents were made by a committee chaired by Sagan.

Druyan worked closely with the committee members, including Frank Drake, but particularly with Sagan, and found herself falling in love with him.

Among the sounds of machines operating, wind and rain, the greetings of various animals, and the music of humans and whales alike, the record contains an hour’s worth of recordings of Druyan’s brainwaves, squeezed down to a minute. The capacity to track brainwaves and turn them into sound was a new technology at the time, and Druyan and Sagan wondered if they might someday be resurrected to reveal her thoughts.

Druyan has said that her thoughts during the time covered roamed widely, on the theme of the things we might like aliens to understand about ourselves. 

This included the history and challenges of human civilizations, but also what it was like to fall in love. Druyan told Radiolab that her brainwaves were recorded just two days after she and Sagan had declared their love for each other. Consequently, the thoughts on love were more than theoretical, and specifically about Sagan himself.

Sagan and Druyan married and were together until his death. Their collaborations included the documentary series Cosmos, still regarded as a landmark in science communication. Druyan also contributed to Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot, which includes his famous reflections on Voyager 1’s photograph of Earth, returning to the theme of our common humanity and our dependence on the “only home we’ve ever known.”

Interstellar space is large and lonely, but also safe compared to the vicinity of stars. The Voyagers’ instruments will fail soon, but the structure of the craft, and the records on board, are expected to survive a billion years, give or take. Whatever becomes of humanity and the Earth in that time the record, including Ann’s thoughts of Carl, will live on.

The complete sounds of the golden record can now be found online, and the records have been reissued for those who prefer the original.

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