The Golden Record

"We cast this message into the cosmos… If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message: We are trying to survive our time so we may live into yours… This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe." - President Jimmy Carter’s message on the Voyager spacecraft.

What your students will learn about/investigate/create:

  • The Golden Record that was placed on both Voyager Spacecrafts.
  • The process and challenges of representing all of humanity through sound.
  • A discussion of how best to transfer this information to beings in other galaxies.
  • An opportunity to make their own “Golden Record” (of sorts).

I have felt particularly drawn towards the Voyager satellites ever since I was little. I remember a television special that was celebrating the fact that the satellites were leaving our solar system - making them 2 of only 4 man-made devices that have done so. I vividly recall feeling sad for the crafts - they must feel so alone floating through the universe! Despite being launched 5 years after the first of the Pioneer spacecraft, Voyager 1 is the furthest object away from Earth that has been made by a human. It will continue to hold that record until humans find a faster way to travel through space. Hearing that fact brings back my feelings of loneliness for Voyager. I definitely feel more sad for Voyager than excited about what it represents.

Since passing Pluto, our Voyager crafts are not headed anywhere specific. It will be a long time before anybody might come upon them.

"The record is constructed of gold-plated copper. There is an ultra-pure sample of the isotope uranium-238 electroplated on the record’s cover. Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.51 billion years. It is possible that a civilization that encounters the record will be able to use the ratio of remaining uranium to daughter elements to determine the age of the record.”

Apparently, in about 40,000 years, Voyager 1 will be 1.6 light years away from ” AC+79 3888 in the Ophiuchus constellation” (Thanks, Wikipedia!). The spacecraft might last 1 BILLION years - a number well beyond our own planet’s lifetime. Think about that for a moment.

How is this related to music?

(See below the break for more info, including the audio from the record and a RadioLab episode!)

When the spacecraft were launched in 1977 (Voyager 2 was launched before Voyager 1), a “Golden Record” was installed on the outside of both crafts. The contents of the record was determined by a group of scholars and scientists including the famed Carl Sagan.

The record includes some of the following:

  • Greetings in 55 languages
  • Messages from the Secretary General of the U.N. and President Jimmy Carter
  • "Sounds of Earth" - including birds, wind, rain, dogs, heartbeats, laughter, and lots more.
  • 90 minutes of music! Everything from Bach (3 times) to Chuck Berry. In case you were interested, Germany is represented the most by appearing six times. America has the second most.
  • 116 pictures were placed on the record using analog technology. Pretty awesome!

Included in those 116 pictures, is some for calibration (playback). And some of the following:

Earth (obviously). Provided by NASA - so it’s free to use.

This picture is titled “Mathematical Definitions” and is copyrighted by Frank Drake. Click the picture to link back to the NASA site with it.

"Diagram of Family Ages" by Jon Lomberg. Click it to go back to NASA.

Besides these attempts to define humanity in some sort of logical way, there are just a bunch of photos from all over the world or random stuff.

"Sprinters (Valeri Borzov of the U.S.S.R. in lead), History of the Olympics, Picturepoint, London"

Musicians should take heart. The LAST picture on the record is of this violin and this score. The link says “Violin with music score (Cavatina), NAIC”.

How do I use this in the classroom?

Well, if you wanted to be boring, you could simply tell them about it. I think it is AT LEAST worthy of a mention in ANY music room.

Here is a link to the entire contents of the audio and the photos!

Outside of that, there are a lot of issues to bring up and potential lessons to teach:

DIY (Do It Yourself)

Have your students design and/or make their own “Golden Record”. Maybe it would be an mp3 player! One consideration would be, “What technology could be transported across the universe?” Other questions might include:

  • How would you describe to extraterrestrials how to playback/view your “Golden Record”?
  • What materials would you put on the record? How would you decide?

Hopefully, your class can find a meaningful way to actually construct their own. No, they can’t send it off into the outer reaches of space, but I bet you and your kids could come up with a way to make the project meaningful.

Alien Role-Playing

Give your students the materials and have them decipher what Carl Sagan and his team were trying to say. Have them ask critical questions about what information any “aliens” would have about us already - they can’t bring THEIR eyes to this experiment. Of specific interest is the graphic on the record itself and the first set of pictures that attempt to explain a lot about our science and math.

Put this in historical context

In a world without easy Internet access (it DID exist!), what barriers would the team have to constructing a “message in a bottle” like this? Do you think governments would do this now or would it be a private company? SHOULD a private company have the ability to send a message into the cosmos? What if our first contact with alien lifeforms is “Eat your Wheaties”?  (If I had any sort of Photoshop skill, I would make a nice illustration of this.)

Explaining Love?

Also on the record is an hour long meditation session from a woman named Ann Druyan - the Creative Director of the Record (she would also end up being Carl Sagan’s wife). Here’s her comments on the experience from the Epilogue to Sagan’s book Billions and Billions:

"Earlier I had asked Carl if those putative extraterrestrials of a billion years from now could conceivably interpret the brain waves of a meditator. Who knows? A billion years is a long, long time, was his reply. On the chance that it might be possible why don’t we give it a try?

Two days after our life-changing phone call, I entered a laboratory at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and was hooked up to a computer that turned all the data from my brain and heart into sound. I had a one-hour mental itinerary of the information I wished to convey. I began by thinking about the history of Earth and the life it sustains. To the best of my abilities I tried to think something of the history of ideas and human social organization. I thought about the predicament that our civilization finds itself in and about the violence and poverty that make this planet a hell for so many of its inhabitants. Toward the end I permitted myself a personal statement of what it was like to fall in love.”

What a powerful experiment. They included this audio on the off-chance -  in the hopes, really - that someone out there could understand our inner thoughts through the sound of our body. I’m not only touched by the fact that Sagan and Druyan both thought it was a good idea, but that the entire panel assembled to decide on the contents agreed that it was a worthwhile inclusion. It puts a new perspective on the definition of music I heard in college - organized sound.

  1. According to “Murmurs of Earth”, Sagan has wanted to put “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles on the Record. The Beatles supported the idea. Their record label, EMI… did not.
  2. This is what was listed in the footnotes of the Wikipedia article:

Originally based on public domain text from the NASA website, where selected images and sounds from the record can be found. However, much of the material from the Voyager records is available in compiled form only to extraterrestrials for copyright reasons.

Remember to check out to experience the Record for yourself. And let me know if any part of this project interests you. I’d LOVE to talk about it some more.

Other resources for the Golden Record:


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