40 years of the Voyager golden record

Voyager golden record

The 40th anniversary of the launch of Voyager has created renewed interest in the two gold-plated phonograph records that are on board. They are expected to survive for 2 billion years. This article offers the inside story of how its contents came to be chosen.

It’s an inspiring read, mostly because I think such an endavour — “a gift, proffered without hope of return” — would never be attempted today.

The Voyager golden record attempts to summarise the history of Earth and humanity. In some ways, the content is thoughtful. For instance, they chose works by Bach and Beethoven specifically because of their mathematical properties, in case the recipient doesn’t understand music as we know it.

I am also fascinated by the image data that was encoded into the audio on one of the discs. Digital audio encoding was rather primitive in 1977. But Nasa employed the services of Colorado Video, who had the technology to transmit a single TV frame via encoded audio over the telephone. Using this technique, 116 photographs were translated into around 8 minutes of audio on the golden record.

One enterprising individual, Ron Barry, has decoded the images after getting hold of the original audio data.

The results are still imperfect, and that is even for a human with an understanding of our audio and TV standards, and what the images are supposed to show. I think it’s fair to say that any aliens that come across this have their work cut out… and that’s before they attempt to understand the content of the images.

In Boing Boing’s comments, Glaurung outlines some of the difficulties extra terristrials may face when perusing the only photo album we have compiled for their consumption.

For a document that attempts to tell the entire story of humanity, it amuses me just how much now-dated-looking 1970s transport is featured. The two miserable-looking traffic jams don’t exactly show us in a great light.

A replica of the Voyager golden record has been made available this year following a successful Kickstarter campaign. Once you factor in the exchange rate and international postage, it costs about £120. That would make it even more expensive than the OK Computer reissue I bought earlier this year. I was tempted to buy it, but I think I’ll have to pass this time.

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