Nasa’s Golden Record, sent into space in 1977 on Voyager 1 and 2, was intended to paint a picture of life on earth—and in particular human life—to any extraterrestrials with the capacity to interpret it. But scientists are now pointing out that this capsule of earthly culture may well give the wrong message to inquisitive aliens. As Rebecca Orchard of Bowling Green State University notes, “it is meant to be received by and interpreted by something that has the sensory capabilities of the average human; if the second one of these senses is absent, or an entirely different sense is added, the Golden Record becomes a bit confusing.” Far from presenting a thoughtful, peace-loving people as it was intended to do, the collection of music, sound-essays, whale sounds, and much else might prove bewildering and even intimidating. Moreover, if our alien friends tried to match up the sounds on one side of the record to the images on the other, they might come to believe that daffodils made a noise like a chainsaw or that a man eating toast had something to do with Bulgarian folk music.
At any rate, the matter is not urgent; although Voyager 1 is now the farthest man-made object from Earth, it will be 40,000 years before it approaches another star system, and who knows what may have become of life on Earth and human culture by then. Arguably, the Golden Record was made more for our benefit than for any of our distant green cousins. The chances of Voyager encountering alien life are already very slim, let alone the probability that these life forms would have evolved to a very similar level and in a very similar way to us. When the biologist Lewis Thomas was asked what message he would choose to send into space in the Voyager spacecraft he famously replied, “I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach … but that would be boasting.” Regardless of whether there exists any life capable of hearing and understanding it, the Golden Record is thus first and foremost a snapshot of what a certain group of humans at a certain time deemed to be most important and most impressive about life on Earth. Orchard remarks, “I would hope that the mere fact that we’ve endeavoured to send a record of humanity shows something about our humanity”; perhaps, then, it is not Stravinsky but our desire to know and to make ourselves known that makes us human.
Students wishing to study Philosophy may wish to reflect on the question of what characterises our species and what is essential to our humanity, as well as how we could hypothetically show this to an alien race from a distance. What would you have put on the Golden Record? Applicants interested in Anthropology as well as those interested in issues of race could consider the Golden Record from the perspective of cultures; how does such an artefact shed light on what examples of human art and endeavour we consider most valuable? Is Voyager’s image of humanity entirely objective and universal?