Friday, February 12, 2010

An interstellar love story...

Okay, well not exactly. But here is an excellent short piece by Radiolab about the creation of the golden record for Voyager spacecrafts, containing a sampling of sounds and images of the world. But then there is also a love story in here - and its signatures are embedded in the record itself.

Listen to the story here (it is about 7 minutes long).

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan in 1977


Tracy said...

Heard this today while I was waking up. Great story!

Dr. Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

What was this Golden Record in Voyager exactly for? I am looking forward for a sane, scientific answer.

Tom Rees said...

It was to inspire young schoolchildren. Certainly worked for me!

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

No no...I am talking about the Golden Record, not the Voyager itself. Certainly I was a school child myself too when Voyager was showing its feats near Neptune, and it worked for me too...and I am an amateur astronomer myself as a result. But what was the exact scientific purpose of things like Golden Record?

Salman Hameed said...

There was no scientific value of the record. This was more about who we are as humans. Theoretically Voyager spacecrafts will go on for thousands and thousands of years (no resistance in space). In fact Voyager 1 will first come close to a star (within 1.6 light years) in about 40,000 years and Voyager 2 will get within a few light years of Sirius in 296,000 years (info from Wikipedia). This NASA knew. But Sagan always thought about big issues - not just about extraterrestrials, but what thinking about ET teach us about ourselves. How do we represent the Earth? What kind of music should be considered as "earth music"? But perhaps more fascinatingly, how do we communicate ideas about us aliens - if they happen to capture one of these spacecrafts thousands of years from now? So they came up with a fascinating way of describing the location of the launch of Voyager spacecraft (Earth): Position of the Sun with respect to the some of the brightest radio pulsars in the galaxy (of course, the assumption is that aliens would also have detected radio pulsars). But how do we say anything about humans? Well, so they described the size of the spacecrafts in the units of hydrogen atoms (assuming that aliens have captured the craft and that they know about the most abundant element in the universe). They used this information to describe how tall humans were.

So, no, this record by in itself did not do any science. But it forced us to think about what makes us human, what are some of the ways to define our species, how do we define other species on earth, and ultimately to think of the entire earth as one. The importance of all of this gets amplified even further realizing that this was during the cold war.


Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

Salman I still don't grasp this idea. What exactly was the Golden Record intended to achieve?

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

"But it forced us to think about what makes us human".
No sir, it forced us to think what makes us anything but cheating on and rifting someone's marital bond.

Salman Hameed said...

"Salman I still don't grasp this idea. What exactly was the Golden Record intended to achieve?"

It was an intriguing attempt to think big. What if in the far far far far future, Voyager spacecraft is intercepted by an alien civilization, then here is a way of communicating with them. In some ways this is similar to time capsule efforts - where people bury things for archaeologists of the future.

""But it forced us to think about what makes us human".
No sir, it forced us to think what makes us anything but cheating on and rifting someone's marital bond."

Hmm...well I like to think in terms of the large questions. As I said before, there are a number of fascinating issues that come up when thinking about how to pick representations of Earth - be it language (humans, whales), music (how far back do we go? is there an a melody common to all cultures? etc), faces, etc. Now it is also possible to think about small personal things about the person making the record. I will go with the big picture.

As far as the particulars are concerned, the record still forces us to think about what makes us human - regardless of Sagan's personal life. This is like rejecting Newton's laws of motion because Newton was an asshole (which he certainly was). And I'm not even commenting on your value statement about "cheating", "rifting someone's marital bond". People make mistakes, including marrying the wrong person. People also fall in love. In Sagan and Ann Druyan's case, they did indeed fell in love - as evidence by their life after the marriage - and until Sagan's death. In fact, even after - as Ann Druyan still continues to write so affectionately about him.

P.S. If this tickles one's fancy, Sagan's life (including his marital issues) is two of his biographies, one by Davidson and one by Poundstone (both complement each other in terms of the topics).