Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Send more Chuck Berry! A look at the only album to leave the solar system

Illustration for article titled Send more Chuck Berry! A look at the only album to leave the solar system

With over 4 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you're throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or trying to work out whether it’s Ukraine, or The Ukraine. But follow enough links, and you get sucked into some seriously strange places. We explore some of Wikipedia's oddities in our 4,462,122-week series, Wiki Wormhole.


This Week’s Entry: Contents of the Voyager Golden Record

What It’s About: In 1977, America launched Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, probes on a mission to study Jupiter and Saturn. However, NASA knew the probes would continue on past those planets, possibly leaving the solar system for parts unknown (Voyager 1 did just that in 2012, and Voyager 2 is due to join it in 2016). On the outside chance that the probes would one day encounter extraterrestrial life, each probe was fitted with a gold record, which contained speech and music from Earth, attempting to encompass and explain all of our planet’s culture within a single LP. 

Strangest Fact: Besides speech, song, and images (various diagrams are scratched into the cover of each Golden Record), each probe contains a recording of the brainwaves of Ann Druyan. Druyan was the girlfriend of Carl Sagan, who chaired NASA’s committee to determine the Golden Records’ contents. (She went on to both marry Sagan and produce his TV show, Cosmos) So just keep in mind that whatever grand gesture you make for your significant other, it’s not half as grand as sending their brainwaves into space for aliens to find.

Biggest Controversy: When Pioneer 10 and 11 were launched in 1972 and 1973, a plaque on each included images of Earth’s position relative to the sun, the path through the solar system the probes would travel, and a nude male and female. NASA was widely criticized for the nudity, as it was widely assumed extraterrestrials would be well familiar with the human concept of shame. So when it was time to include images of the human form with the Voyager probes, NASA prohibited Sagan from including photographs of a nude man and woman, insisting he show them only in silhouette. However, among the 116 images included is a diagram of human genitalia, as part of a series of “where do babies come from?” instructional images.

Thing We Were Happiest To Learn: NASA had pretty good taste in music. The 27 songs on the Golden Records span several cultures, from a Peruvian wedding song to a Navajo chant, to Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. Sagan had wanted to use “Here Comes The Sun,” and The Beatles approved, but record label EMI shot the idea down. America’s three tracks are the most modern—cuts from Louis Armstrong and blues singer Blind Willie Johnson, and “Johnny B. Goode”—leading to a Saturday Night Live gag that aliens had responded to the Golden Record with a four-word message: “SEND MORE CHUCK BERRY.”

Thing We Were Unhappiest To Learn: If aliens do find Voyager’s message, they won’t know what the hell we’re saying. The Golden Records open with an English greeting from then-UN Secretary General, Kurt Waldheim, followed by short greetings in 55 languages from around the world, including long-dead tongues like Sumerian and Ancient Greek. So any alien linguists listening to the recording will have between four and seven seconds to decipher what to them is an unknown alien language. To further frustrate our alien friends, each speaker sends a different message, so the record doesn’t even function as a Rosetta Stone, where one can learn by comparing translations.

Also Noteworthy: Also included on the Golden Records are sections on “sounds of Earth,” that include nature sounds including volcanoes, thunder, wind, surf, as well as noises from crickets, birds, elephants, and chimpanzees, plus man-made sounds from a tractor, train, car, Morse Code, and the lift-off of Saturn V. Like the languages, the cavalcade of sounds would be no doubt baffling to anyone hearing them devoid of context.

Best Link To Elsewhere On Wikipedia: Unless you’ve always wanted to learn more about Esperanto (one of the languages included on the records), the links to various space probes are a fascinating look at Voyager’s era of space exploration.

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