Monday, April 20, 2015

Murmurs Of Earth, The Voyager Interstellar Record by Carl Sagan - BookReport #133

Think of the Voyager record as a time capsule from Earth of the 1970's.

The book is really a collection of essays about the creation of the Voyager record.  Which itself is quaint, knowing how technology has progressed since then. Even now, with the current resurgence in popularity of vinyl records, a person would be hard pressed to even play the Voyager record if it was available to buy.  It was encoded at 16 2/3 RPM in order to pack as much information as possible into it.

For The Future Times and Beings by Carl Sagan. I was surprised and a bit disgusted by the politics that came into the project and by some of the vitriol that was launched at the project team for what was included and what was left out.  It is lucky it was made at all.

The Foundations of the Voyager Record by Frank Drake.  The second essay tackles the difficult subject of just how you compose a message to an alien race.  There have been other instances of humanity sending proverbial messages in bottles.  Notably Pioneer 10 and 11 have plaques attached that caused much controversy because they included nude figures of humans.  In November of 1974, from the Arecibo radio telescope, a message was sent to the globular star cluster, Messier 13, which will take 25,000 years to get there.  In this transmission was an easily decode-able binary message that I thought would be quite difficult to understand.  As a matter of fact, I certainly would not be able to understand anything that has been sent so far.  I shouldn't worry about that since the intended audience are the scientific minds of unknown alien races not regular alien folks like me.

The plaque attached to Pioneer 10 & 11
The message sent by the Arecibo Observatory

The Voyager golden record cover

Pictures of Earth by Jon Lomberg: explains each individual photograph that is on the voyager record.   Here, again I was struck at how much thought went in to selecting each photo.  

There was a considerable effort in making sure each selection built upon another. Even with the nearly four decades that have passed you can get the impression that this is really a time capsule of sorts. The technology in the images has certainly moved on. But there is also a timeless quality to most of it; images depicting human beings will never be outdated. Unless we tragically don't continue as a race. 

A Voyager's Greetings by Linda Salzman Segan: was probably the most touching section of the book.  I was not surprised, by this point, that there was an agonizing amount of thought put into this portion of the project.  The bulk of this essay was occupied by a chart depicting; the language the greeting was spoken in, what was said printed in the characters of that language, the English translation, the speaker's name, the countries where the language is spoken, how many millions of people speak that language and the percent of the world's population that represents.

I was quickly drawn to the English translation column and found the greetings to be very poignant, hopeful, funny and respectful.  If I take this book off the shelf to show someone, I will most likely flip the pages of this section first.


The Sounds of Earth by Ann Druyan.  On the Voyager record there is a collection of typical sounds from Earth; volcanoes, earthquakes, thunder, wind, rain, surf, crickets, frogs, footsteps, heartbeats, laughter, Morse code, train, truck, jet and many more.

All the sounds are laid out in a chronological order of life on Earth.  My personal belief is that this may be the most confusing portion of the record, just because sound effects, on their own require a familiarity with the source.  Many of the sounds tie with the pictures and are roughly in the same sequence as the photos so there is an elegance and logic to it.

Voyager's Music by Timothy Ferris.  I'll be honest here; I skipped most of this essay.  I love music and have something playing in the background as much as possible.  (I'm listening to some Gene Ammons as I write this). I am not, however, well versed in classical music, or traditional world folk music which comprises the bulk of the music selections.  I also am very weak in the terms used to describe music and its creation, so much of the discussion here just went over my head.

I do believe the addition of music on the record to be an inspired choice. Talk about putting our best foot forward.

The Voyager Mission to the Outer Solar System by Carl Sagan.  Since this book was published in 1978 and the first encounters with Jupiter did not happen until the next year the essay is worded in forward-looking language which made reading it quite special.  Sagan speculated on what would be learned based on what was then only theorized or remotely detected.  The flybys of Uranus and Neptune were still in the planning stages. 

It is a treat to see just how well the scientist of the day predicted what they found.  I was especially taken by what they knew of Io, Jupiter's innermost moon; they knew it was orbiting through a doughnut-shaped cloud of material that was thought to come from its surface but not why.  How wonderful it must have been when Voyager showed it to be caused by intense volcanic activity.

A massive volcanic eruption on the surface of Io.

The final essay is the Epilogue by Carl Sagan. Here we get back into the romanticism of the project and where we find ourselves today (2015).  Now that both Voyager 1 and 2 have crossed into interstellar space the final question to answer is what to do with the remaining propulsion fuel?  Currently the spacecraft are headed to open space but there is some thought being made to alter course and send them to nearby star systems.

Sagan also speculated how long the Voyager records can physically last given the environment of space; radiation and micrometeorites will have the greatest influence on the durability of the messages it contains.

Final thoughts.  If you can track down a copy of this book it is well worth adding it to your collection.  I took from it a sense of satisfaction and pride from what it contained and the efforts of the project team. I can't think of a better way to introduce humanity to the galaxy.

Carl Sagan holding the Pioneer plaque.

No comments: