Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Intergalactic Mix Tape

In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager space probes. Along with cameras, sensors and assorted gizmos, each carried a golden record containing images and sounds from earth. The idea being that any spacefaring civilization that intercepted our maiden deep-space emissaries would break out their Technics, slap down the platter and be intrigued enough to come say hello. Presumably, they wouldn't blast us into atoms upon their arrival.

The Golden Record Project was lead by astronomer, astrochemist and all around polymathic legend Carl Sagan. Among the sounds and images on the record were: a solar locater map, a Bach Concerto, some blues by Blind Willie Johnson, Sagan's son saying hello and a simple calibration circle which would tell the little green men that they had correctly played the record and could get on with enjoying the contents.

The most interesting bit of all of this, to me, is the system they developed for communicating with an alien scientist. I mean, how do you say, "drop the needle and play at 73 rpm" and "we're on that blue speck next to that average-sized star in such-and-such a corner of that galaxy over there" to someone who can't speak any earth language and may not even have ears, eyes, or carbon-based DNA? The answer is simple. Math.
Using constants which they believed to be universal (the transition time between states of hydrogen atoms, the speed of light and the periods of known pulsars.) Sagan and his team did their best to communicate some pretty detailed information.

So, a group of speccy blokes with slide-rules can communicate with alien civilizations, but London-based ad agencies need satellite offices to communicate with the people in Dubai? Something doesn't add up.

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