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Message in a Bottle: Nearly Four Decades After Launch the Voyager Record Still Inspires

September 28, 2016
by Pat Joseph

This Friday night the Greek Theatre will host a one-night-only performance of music and storytelling exploring the “sounds, ideas, and culture of California and the West today.” Called “The Golden State Record,” the evening’s program—a joint presentation by the folks at Pop-Up Magazine, California Sunday Magazine (not to be confused with this magazine), and festival producer NoisePop—is a nod to the NASA Voyager Golden Records, which are carried by the twin space probes, Voyagers 1 and 2.

Launched from Cape Canaveral nearly 40 years ago, Voyager 1 is now in interstellar space, the farthest flung man-made object in the universe. Voyager 2, not far behind, is currently transiting the heliosheath, a bubble-like region at the outer fringe of our solar system, where the solar winds stall against the interstellar medium. It will be another 40,000 years before either spacecraft approaches another planetary system.

The records—intended to serve as a greeting from Earth to any intelligent beings that should find them—are 12-inch gold-plated copper phonograph discs machined to play at 16 2/3 revolutions per minute. A stylus and IKEA-like visual instructions for its use are included, so you can imagine how that will likely play out.

The LPs—basically elaborate time capsules—contain a mix of information and artifacts, including earth sounds and images, greetings in 54 languages, and 90 minutes of music. Unlike any other time capsules in history—or record albums, for that matter—they were electroplated with Uranium-238, so that they might also act as radioactive clocks. Half-life: 4 billion years, give or take.

Credit: Voyager Golden Record Kickstarter Campaign

The producer responsible for putting together the planetary playlist was celebrated science writer Timothy Ferris, a former contributing editor for Rolling Stone and professor emeritus of journalism at UC Berkeley. Reached at his home in San Francisco recently, Ferris was unsurprised but gratified to learn of Friday night’s event. “I keep hearing about new projects inspired by Voyager and the record. People have put together their own collections or used it as a school assignment and I’ve lost count of all the films about it.” In fact, Ferris said, he had just spoken to a director in England who is planning a movie for Warner Brothers. “He wants to do something about the one month when the whole project came together and all the interactions.”

Many of those interactions, back in the summer of 1977, were between Ferris and the late, great cosmologist Carl Sagan—the man whose idiosyncratic enunciation of the word ‘billions’ was imprinted on an entire generation of Americans. The other core collaborators were artist Jon Lomberg, SETI enthusiast Frank Drake, Sagan’s then-wife, Linda Saltzman, and his future wife Ann Druyan, the co-creator of the original Cosmos TV program, which Carl Sagan hosted.

Other advisers to the project included science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, and musicologist Alan Lomax, who helped track down obscure recordings of, say, African pygmy music and Georgian chants.

At the first meeting of the group Ferris said he proposed two criteria for the project. “First of all, to include a lot of music from different cultures so it wouldn’t be unnecessarily biased toward the culture that had launched the spacecraft. And the other was just to make it a really good record, by which I meant, don’t do committee-work, second-rate stuff.” He recalls, “There was some pressure to include an Irish song because Tip O’Neil, the Speaker of the House at that time, was Irish. Not that Tip himself probably gave a damn, but that’s PR thinking and you can’t have that. Other folks wanted ‘Moscow Nights,’ included to placate the Soviets. A hideous song! We were able to resist.”

In the end, the artists selected ranged from Blind Willie Johnson to Johannes Bach to Chuck Berry, in genres running from rock to raga, Balinese gamelan to Chinese Chi’in.

The lineup at the Greek this Friday will be a bit less globally oriented, if no less eclectic. Organizer Derek Fagerstrom, cofounder of the live magazine concept, Pop-Up, emphasizes, “Our idea was never to just recreate what’s on the Voyager record. But it was like our launching pad. We gave ourselves a similar curatorial task. Instead of asking what Earth sounded like circa 1977, it was ‘What does California and the West sound like in 2016?’”

Judging by the program, the Golden State sounds hip, multiethnic, sophisticated, and perhaps even a little spiritual. Included on the night’s musical roster are such acts as singer/songwriter Shamir, rapper Lil B, indie folk chanteuse Thao Nguyen, and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. The musicians will be joined on stage by scholars and storytellers including author and journalist Jon Mooallem, music critic and 2016 MacArthur grantee Josh Kun, and theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin.

Not all the performers were acquainted with the NASA record before being approached to participate in the show. “It was divided,” says organizer Derek Fagerstrom. “They were either like, ‘Golden Record? What’s that?’ or else ‘Oh my God, that’s the greatest thing ever!'”

Not all the performers were acquainted with the NASA record before being approached to participate in the show. “It was divided,” says Fagerstrom. “They were either like, ‘Golden Record? What’s that?’ or else ‘Oh my God, that’s the greatest thing ever!’ But they were all curious to learn more, and everyone was excited to be a part of the concept once they knew about it.”

And so the record continues to inspire—everything from modern dance performances to Drunk History segments. And yet, notes Ferris, the thing itself has never been available to the public, at least not as an LP. That is about to change however.

David Pescovitz, a former student of Ferris’s at Cal, (not to mention coeditor of Boing Boing, research director at the Institute for the Future, and occasional contributor to California), has been busy securing rights to finally release the Golden Record on vinyl. Last week, he and two friends launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to produce a box set containing three golden-hued records featuring all the sound and music of the Voyager records, plus a companion book showcasing the imagery encoded on the discs—all in time to mark the 40th Anniversary of the Voyager launch next summer.

Pescovitz said he’d been fascinated with the golden record since he was a kid and that his interest got a boost when Ferris became his thesis adviser at Berkeley in the early 90s. “I used to pepper him with questions about it even back then.”

Apparently the fascination is shared by many. The crowdfunding effort went live last Tuesday. By Thursday they had already surpassed their goal of raising $198,000. After a week the project had garnered more than $650,000 in pledges from more than 5,000 backers. Pescovitz sends 20 percent of the net proceeds to the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University.

So what explains the enduring appeal and sudden enthusiasm for a 40-year-old record that few have ever listened to? “I think what appeals is the grandeur of human vision,” says Ferris, “I think Voyager speaks to the open-ended, exploration-oriented part of the human spirit.” He contrasted that with the current state of global politics, where “simple solutions folks” on both the left and right harbor “closed views of the world and a static vision of who humans are–a vision that says we’ll always be the way we were and there’s no hope that we can be any better. This is not factually true.”

Ferris’s optimism was echoed by Carl Sagan, who, while noting the infinitesimal but non-zero chance that the Voyager record would ever be found and played, stated that, nevertheless, “the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

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