On September 5, 1977, almost exactly 40 years ago, the Voyager 1 probe was launched into the darkness of space. Voyager carried a golden record—a sampler of the greatest hits of life on Earth (it's twin, Voyager 2, had an identical record). Our greetings in 55 languages. Our music. Recordings of human laughter, and the haunting sounds of whale song. Encodings of our brain waves, and images of our science and culture. We sent the best of ourselves. We wanted to make a good impression on any potential listeners out there.
The golden record was about who we are, and the planet we call our home. It was also about the beauty and power of science. The producers of the record had to encode the sounds and images of Earth in a way that made this information understandable by potentially very different forms of intelligence. The assumption was that advanced civilizations all spoke the language of mathematics, atomic physics, chemistry, and astronomy. The record makers wrote down our home address by locating the solar system relative to prominent cosmic landmarks. “Look at Earth with respect to these 14 pulsars”, the record said. “That will tell you where we live.”
As Carl Sagan put it, we released a “bottle into the cosmic ocean." Science was our way of helping any finders read the message in the bottle.
Now, forty years after launching the bottle, the beauty and power of science is still clear to most of the rest of the world. It is less clear in 21st century America. Powerful politicians are ignoring and devaluing scientific understanding, and are incorrectly dismissing human-caused climate change as a hoax. This willful ignorance is jeopardizing our planetary life-support system.
The golden record was an attempt to communicate with distant alien civilizations. Four decades after launching Voyager, we still have not figured out how to communicate thoughtfully with others in this country who are not like us. That communication problem requires our urgent attention.
Perhaps there are watchers out in the void, guardians of the galaxy, possessors of technologies we cannot even imagine. They may have observed the rapid increase in Earth’s greenhouse gas levels over the past several centuries, coincident with the development of an industrialized civilization. They may have monitored the rapid changes in atmospheric temperature caused by those greenhouse gas increases. They surely know that such rapid changes in our planetary life support system are a poor portent for the makers of the golden record.
Included on Voyager 1 was the following message from President Carter: “This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” We are still attempting to survive our time, and must not let our survival be threatened by forces antithetical to science, reason, and our shared humanity.