Is There Anybody Out There? The Golden Record in the Twentieth-Century Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence 

Written by Kat Jivkova

On 5 September 1977, the Voyager 1 space probe was launched into space by NASA. Placed inside it was a phonograph containing a selection of Earth’s best images and audios up until that year, chosen by astronomer Charles Sagan and his associates. Known as the Golden Record, these included the following: 118 images of Earth, recordings of greetings from Earth spoken in 55 languages, 21 audio recordings of the natural sounds of Earth, and 27 recordings of music from different eras and cultures. Voyager’s mission was to extend NASA space exploration beyond the Solar System, and to actively facilitate the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Through the Golden Record, astronomers hoped to curate an accurate representation of Earth’s music, images and feelings to neighbouring spacefarers. But which recordings and images deserved to be showcased, and who should have been responsible for choosing them? These questions have circulated among scientists of the twenty-first century, who have since criticised the Golden Record. Before discussing this, a brief history of growing extraterrestrial interest in the twentieth century and a further description of the contents of the Golden Record will be outlined to contextualise these criticisms.  

The SETI project commenced in the 1960s under Cornell astronomer Frank Drake. At only 29 years of age, Drake hypothesised the existence of distant civilisations that could be detected via radio evidence. Otto Struve, the director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), helped Drake materialise this theory – he himself had speculated that the angular momentum of certain stars had been dispersed with the formation of distant planets, which had resulted in their slowed rotations. There was no reason why, he argued, these planets could not be habitable. Thus, he allowed Drake to use the Howard Tatel telescope of NRAO to conduct SETI experiments that could reveal extraterrestrial life.  

The international scientific community enthusiastically responded to this newly emerging discipline, excited by the prospects that other intelligent forms of life could imply. Drake soon found himself in dialogue with numerous scientists and technologists who were keen to participate in his experiment, which he named Project Ozma. This title, which refers to L. Frank Baum’s The Lost Princess of Oz, reflects the poetic aspect of the emerging field. It was obvious that this experiment was as much an adventurous dream as a scientific pursuit for many of the scientists involved. Project Ozma relied on the observations of two candidate stars, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani, which possibly harboured habitable planets. They were searched on a single frequency, 1420 MHz, over the course of only one month, unfortunately not revealing any evidence that could support Drake’s theory. The experiment, however, was hailed a success for establishing SETI as a scientific discipline and introducing the concept of extraterrestrial life as a scientific paradigm. While previous searches for “aliens” were labelled fringe science, Project Ozma legitimised SETI as a credible field of research. In 1961, the first scientific conference of modern SETI further confirmed this, discussing the many areas of astronomy that it could encompass, from the evolution of intelligence to the formation of planets.  

By tracing the emergence of SETI, NASA’s project is placed within a longer tradition of extraterrestrial observation. Over a decade later, efforts were made to transition from SETI to “Active SETI” research, also known as Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI). The latter refers to the deliberate announcement of Earth to extraterrestrial civilisations, i.e. sending interstellar messages to alert “aliens” of our presence. This shift received backlash by “METI critics”, who argued that sending interstellar messages may have dangerous consequences if received by hostile alien civilisations. Scientists have countered this argument by pointing out that it is likely that advanced extraterrestrial civilisations have already been made aware of Earth’s existence due to the large number of electromagnetic signals that have been leaking into space from our planet for over a century. The Golden Record’s predecessor, the Pioneer Plaque on the Pioneer Probes of the early 1970s, was an aluminium plate which offered visual representations of a human male and female, as well as information about the origin of the spacecraft. This plaque was created by Drake, and American astronomer Carl Sagan. Both played an equally significant role in the creation of the Golden Record just a few years later, which offered a much broader description of Earth. Assembled for NASA, this record was covered in gold plating, placed inside aluminium containers, and electroplated with uranium-238. Upon playing the record, extraterrestrial individuals will see various scenes from Earth, including images of DNA structure, mathematical formulae, and Solar System diagrams. More interesting are the audio tracks of the record. The English “greetings from the Earth” recording, for example, was recorded by Sagan’s son, Nick. Almost forty years later, Nick revealed his thoughts on being one of the voices of the Golden Record: 

“That my voice represents the English language on the most distant human-made object in the universe is a tremendous honour and a strange, giddy, wonderful feeling.”  

While the Voyager may never reach any extraterrestrial civilisation, Nick still feels proud to be a part of a “message in a bottle” in interstellar space. However, would Nick have been selected to have been the voice of the record had he not have been Carl Sagan’s son? Should Sagan even have led the construction of the record in the first place?  

Current scholars have argued that attempts to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligence should not be led by astronomers or engineers, but by social scientists who specialise in inter-cultural communication. The Golden Record has been deemed as an inaccurate representation of Earth, and by sending it out into space, astronomers have deceived whoever it is that finds it. METI projects such as the Golden Record may have placed humanity at risk by presenting recordings and images that portray Earth in a misleading light. For example, the record does not include anything which could suggest that Earth have defensive systems, namely military capability. This may suggest to extraterrestrial intelligence that our planet can be easily overpowered and exploited. Another concern is that the record portrays Earth in an overly idealistic manner, while omitting the climate crises, wars, and disease that have polluted it. Alien travellers may enthusiastically respond to the message, and upon arriving on Earth be met with bitter disappointment. Others have criticised the record for being disproportionately anthropocentric, with most of its contents related to humans despite that fact that we only comprise 2.5 per cent of Earth’s animal biomass. In the record’s defence, it is impossible to include every single detail of Earth on a single aluminium disc. Introducing METI as a multi-disciplinary field of research, however, will allow for a more diverse range of scientists and artists to be involved in this form of diplomacy between humankind and extraterrestrials – the first step would be for space agencies to create review boards filled with diplomats who can help to construct a less biased representation of Earth.  

There is one aspect of the Golden Record that is commendable: the music section. Sagan’s team selected an impressive range of musical compositions, which add historical depth to the record. While there are more modern “hits” including Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode, the record offers music from past periods. The traditional guqin piece Liu Shui originating from the Warring States Period of China, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring from the English Renaissance, and the classical period of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote (The magic flute) are a few examples. Included on this “interstellar playlist” are also a number of folk songs – the Bulgarian folklore song Izlel je Delyo Hajdutin was sang by Valya Balkanska and tells the story of a Bulgarian freedom fighter during the reign of the Ottoman Empire in the early modern period. The song was accompanied by a gaida (bagpipe), which the residents of Southern Bulgaria have labelled “the mouthpiece” of the mountains – it was undoubtedly for this very reason that Sagan chose to include this powerful song in the record. The music collection does still have its faults as the rest of the record. It neglects music from the Middle East, and overrepresents American music in the popular genre, and classical music. Once again, it is impossible to include music from every single time period, region and culture, however there should have been made further efforts to be as inclusive as possible.  

The Golden Record can provide us with a key lesson regarding the way we approach extraterrestrial pursuits in the present day: astronomers cannot remain the only source of authority in SETI and METI activity in the future. With a discipline that has such vast implications, it is only fair that a vast number of scientists, artists and musicians should be actively involved. The record presents a narrow view of the progression of the world, mostly centred on the development of Western science and culture. However, this is understandable given the context in which the Voyager was launched into space, at a time when Western centrism was the norm. More interestingly, it echoes the hope and excitement of a scientific community at the implications that we are not alone in the galaxy. Sagan’s son certainly shares a popular consensus among METI scientists when he hopes that “a benevolent alien civilisation” will find the record and tell their own civilisation’s story in response.  


Bibliography

Bilder, Richard B. “On the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).” The American journal of international law 114, no. 1 (2020): 87–95.  

Chua, Daniel K. L., Alexander Rehding, Takahiro Kurashima, and Kwong Shing Lau. Alien Listening Voyager’s Golden Record and Music from Earth. New York: Zone Books, 2021.  

NASA. “Making of the Golden Record.” [Online]. [Accessed on 29 October 2022]. 

https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/golden-record/making-of-the-golden-record/

Pettman, Dominic. “After the Beep: Answering Machines and Creaturely Life.” Boundary 2 37, no. 2 (2010): 133–153.  

Showstack, Randy. “Nick Sagan Reflects on Voyager 1 and the Golden Record.” Eos (Washington, D.C.) 94, no. 40 (2013): 351–351.  

Shuch, H. Paul. “Project Ozma: The Birth of Observational SETI.” In Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, 13–18. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2010. 

Traphagan, John W. “Should We Lie to Extraterrestrials? A Critique of the Voyager Golden Records.” Space policy 57 (2021): 101440. 

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