If you ask Google, this episode by Radiolab is considered a classic. I mean, the episode is all about space and space it pretty epic, so the possibility of not being fascinated by this episode is slim to none. There’s a lot to cover so I will do my best to parse over the small details and only pull out the good stuff so your friends will look at you like you’re the next Neil Degrasse Tyson. Oh yea, he’s in this episode too. Enjoy!
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The Golden Record – Messages from Earth
It’s August of 1977 and NASA just launched the Voyager into space with precious cargo onboard. No, I’m not talking about humans, but rather, a record of humankind and life on Earth. Carl Sagan and his future wife, Annie Druyan, headed The Voyager Interstellar Message Project which was responsible for communicating our world to the extraterrestrials that may one day find this golden record. Annie, who was interviewed for the show, called the record a “cultural Noah’s ark”, our attempt to let others know that we want to be citizens of the cosmos.
The record has a shelf life of a billion years and is traveling at 35,000 mph. More details about what was included on the record can be found at the link above, but here are some of the things I found most interesting:
- “The information in the upper right-hand portion of the cover is designed to show how pictures are to be constructed from the recorded signals. The top drawing shows the typical signal that occurs at the start of a picture. The picture is made from this signal, which traces the picture as a series of vertical lines, similar to ordinary television (in which the picture is a series of horizontal lines). Picture lines 1, 2 and 3 are noted in binary numbers, and the duration of one of the “picture lines,” about 8 milliseconds, is noted. The drawing immediately below shows how these lines are to be drawn vertically, with staggered “interlace” to give the correct picture rendition. Immediately below this is a drawing of an entire picture raster, showing that there are 512 vertical lines in a complete picture. Immediately below this is a replica of the first picture on the record to permit the recipients to verify that they are decoding the signals correctly. A circle was used in this picture to insure that the recipients use the correct ratio of horizontal to vertical height in picture reconstruction.”
- Greetings in different languages from around the world. The english greeting was,”Hello from the children of planet Earth.”
- We sent a recording of a mother kissing her baby.
Falling in Love with Carl Sagan
As Annie describes the process of figuring out what to put on the record, we come to a story about Annie and Carl falling in love with one another. I will skip out on the details but definitely urge you to listen to the podcast to hear how this interesting relationship came to be.
During this story, however, Annie does talk about something I thought was interesting. Annie mentioned that she asked Carl if it would be worthwhile to compress impulses in the nervous system onto the record in the hopes that ETs could decode it into thought. To this, Carl replies something to the effect of, “who knows what technology is and will be available to whomever finds this record, so do it.” So that’s what she did. She recorded her brainwaves and every little sound her body made and placed them on the record. To Annie, this message was love. The thoughts and feelings that were captured had to be undoubtedly consumed with the feeling of falling in love with Carl (aww, how sweet).
The Problem with the Golden Record
On the podcast, they propose that it would take 30,000 years for the record to get to Zeta Tucanae, a nearby star that may or may not host ETs – and that’s if you increase the speed of the record to 1,000,000 mph.
In addition to the problem of distance, Radiolab introduces another obstacle into the mix. This obstacle is one of chance and that is that we find a civilization that is in a stage in which they are capable of retrieving the record and having the technology to decode it. In basic terms, there are 3 stages to civilization: the infant stage (when we were monkeys), the civilized stage (current day), & the saddest of all stages, the extinction stage. In order for our message to be heard, we would need a civilization to be in their civilized stage, adding yet another variable against the probability that our golden message will ever be found.
Furthermore, the universe is constantly expanding and has been since the “Big Bang”. This means that there is more space all the time, and that empty spaces in the universe are only getting bigger.
Enter, Neil deGrasse Tyson
Tyson goes on to describe a time before Nicolaus Copernicus when humans thought the Earth was in the middle of the universe. They figured this because when you look up at the night sky, you see the same amount of stars in all directions. Copernicus then proposed that the sun was in the middle of the universe, making the Earth just a planet in his book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). This idea was so controversial that he waited until he was on his deathbed to publish it in 1543.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that, Harlow Shapley, noticed more star clusters in one direction than another. Edwin Hubble then discovered that these clusters were actually galaxies and thus came to find that our sun was indeed not in the middle of the universe after all. Because the universe is constantly expanding in all directions and at the same rate, no matter where you are in the universe, it appears that you are in the center. Pretty cool, huh?
A fact that Tyson mentions in the Podcast that I have trouble validating is his claim that the same elements you find most abundant in the universe are also the same elements you find most abundant in the human body. Per my research, this appears to not be 100% true.
The table above shows the most common elements in the universe while the chart below displays the most common elements in the human body. Although, they share similarities, they do not share a 1 to 1 relationship.
Tyson’s last point is similar to ones he’s made on the show Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (which is an awesome show). In order to help people conceptualize just how long humans have been a civilization, Tyson asks listeners to imagine a timeline 100 yards long with the big bang event at the start of it. For every step you walk on this timeline, you move up 70 million years. Once at the very end of the timeline, it would only be a single strand of hair that divides humans from their caveman ancestors to the point where we are surfing the web on our smartphones. Whoa.
In 1984, NASA asked the public to submit ideas of things worth sending into space. One of these ideas came from a group of kids who proposed sending seeds. And on April 6th, 1984, the Challenger successfully launched and NASA did just that.
After spending some time in space, the seeds were to be picked up by Challenger’s next visit to space. Unfortunately, the Challenger never made it to space as it exploded 73 seconds into its launch killing the 7 people inside. The space program was put on hiatus for 2 years after this incident.
In 1990, the seeds were finally brought back by the shuttle Colombia. As you may already know, the Colombia also exploded during a mission, making all shuttles that had anything to do with the seeds the only NASA shuttles that were ever lost.
A New Age of Space Exploration
The greatest age in space exploration all started with JFK’s memorable speech at Rice University where he promised humans would land on the moon. It was inspirational and brought out the best in the United States. However, this enthusiasm was short lived and once we made it to the moon, we have hardly come close to challenging ourselves to reach higher heights.
That said, our current generation seems to be curious and motivated enough to usher in a new age of space exploration. A speech by Peter Diamandis highlights the fact that government is not willing to take the risks involved with getting humans into space. At $1 billion per shuttle, they see it as simply too expensive of an investment. Realizing that waiting on the government to get us into space is fruitless, Diamandis created the X Prize.
The X Prize was a financial incentive of $10 million dollars offered to the first team who could get to space and back to earth twice in to 2 weeks. The prize was announced in 1996 and in October of 2004, we had a winner, a few months shy of the contest’s deadline.
Since the airing of this episode, we have seen the private space industry reach exciting new heights with companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin leading the front. Let’s hope that this continues as we cannot afford to lose our sense of exploration, no matter how impossible the feats may seem.