20 July 2006

Hey, linguists and ethnomusicologists (or, "What's on the gold record sent with the Voyager spacecraft?")

(This is a lengthy, link-bloated post, but I find a lot of enjoyment in this stuff. You might like taking a few minutes to click around.)

If you built a spacecraft that might be intercepted somewhere . . . out there, what cultural artifacts would you include with it?

The late Carl Sagan headed an effort to include audio recordings of greetings in a multitude of languages, as well as all sorts of imagery, onboard the two Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. The data were encoded on a gold "record," along with a stylus and visual instructions on how to decode them.

For a short time, a wonderful book and dual-CD set were available in bookstores with all of the imagery, music, and spoken language. I find it fascinating; the first picture is a circle, since it's easy for the (uh) aliens to calibrate their decoders to it. They are taught the symbols of our arithmetic, as well as indications of what a "meter" and a "second" are. From there, they are taught about our biochemistry - DNA - the periodic table, solar system, where babies come from, what our occupations look like, what animals look like, etc. (The scientists used a funny typeface that put weird serifs on the lowercase "h," presumably in case the decoding was noisy.)

It's it neat that this single slide contains enough information to let someone (something?) decode the notation of our basic math? It's like all of second and third grade compressed into one image.

It's still protected by copyright, but you can hear and see samples of it on JPL's website.

  • Multiple language recordings. Greetings from Earth in 55 languages, such as Korean, Burmese, Japanese, and Marathi. The out-of-print CD also has greetings from whales.
  • The globe's representative music. If your library has it, you can hear (and read about the academic struggle of choosing) representitive music of our planet. The songs are listed here - Javanese gamelan, Bach, Chuck Berry... (no, BB, no Aphex Twin).
  • The whole earth, in a few pictures. The illustrations I mentioned that are supposed to paint as complete a picture of our arithmetic, chemistry, biology, and scope of daily lives are sampled here.
Isn't this neat? I wonder if that song is on the record.



RLB said...

This is *awesome*, especially the photos of earth and the multilingual greetings. Thanks for sharing. It totally takes me back to my childhood -- I was fascinated by space and was convinced I was going to be the next Sally Ride. And though I couldn't have articulated the reason at age six, I think a big part of the appeal was the hopeful optimism and earnestness that this Voyager stuff conjures up.

I loved Carl Sagan, too. I remember seeing him on PBS explaining space stuff. I learned from him about what and how big a googol is -- I distinctly remember how he unrolled this long spool of paper, probably an adding-machine tape or something, that started with a 1 and just had yards and yards of zeroes after it. Obviously made quite an impression. :)

I don't think I quite understand some of the early slides you linked to, though... I mostly get the mathematical notation one (the 2nd column is binary?) but I don't get how the aliens are supposed to understand it -- it makes sense to me because I already know what + means, for example. Also I don't see how they'll know what a second or a meter are from the symbols shown. Guess I wouldn't make a very good code-deciphering alien. :)

G-Fav said...

The book/CD set is Murmurs of Earth, which has an entry at Amazon and Powell's Books, though out-of-print.

Aneequs and I thought it was funny that the Swedish clip, "Halsmingar fran en data programmerare i den lilla universitats staden Ithaca pa planeten jorden," translates to: "Greetings from a computer programmer in the little university town of Ithaca on the planet Earth."

Accordng to the text, the "Dictionary - Physical Unit Definitions" tries to define M as the mass of the hydrogen atom (upper left), "...undergoing a change of energy states that emits radiation at a frequency which is the reciprocal of 1 t with a wavelength of 1 L. (Interstellar hydrogen gas has a radiative state with a line at 21.1 cm.) e is one Earth mass.

"Hello," folks from GeekPress. Thanks, Paul!


wubbahed said...

On a slightly askew tangent, this post made me think of this cartoon I saw online recently... funny stuff...
>> http://xkcd.com/c114.html <<