“The Backbone of the Night” was one of the first paintings Carl Sagan commissioned Jon Lomberg to do. Inspired by the Botswanian Kahlahari people’s description of the Milky Way being the “backbone of the night,” this starry vertebrate visual became a title graphic for the original COSMOS series. ©Jon Lomberg
Earlier this week, data from a solar tsunami event captured on the Voyager 1 helped NASA confirm that the spacecraft, as of 2012, had left the heliosphere, the magnetic glue-like particle field that binds our solar system, and is now floating in interstellar space. With its sister ship, Voyager 2, not far behind— and also expected to leave the outer Solar System and cross over into interstellar space by 2016— the spacecrafts have been exploring deep space since 1977, sending back home beautiful photos of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. On both, fly very special cargo: golden gramophone records containing a message from Earth, or “a bottle into the cosmic ocean” as astronomer Carl Sagan called it, because you never know what might intercept the ship.
Today, Jon Lomberg, the design director of the Voyager Golden Record project, wants to rethink the almost forty-year-old project for current times. Alongside a team of advisors, scientists, artists and technologists, over 10,000 signatures from 140 different countries have been culled in support of a crowdsourced digital message to be beamed up to the computers on the New Horizons probe. Launched in 2006, the New Horizons probe will be the first spacecraft to reach Pluto, come 2015. Then, it, too, will go into interstellar space— NASA is currently reviewing the proposal.
Lomberg remembers the Golden Record as a project of galactic proportions. In 1977, six weeks before the record was due on board the Voyager spacecrafts, Carl Sagan assembled a mighty team of six to bring to life a physical depiction of the entirety of humanity and life on Earth. At that point, Sagan, whose life’s work hovered between fascinations of life on our world and beyond, had already worked on plaques with messages from the human race for the 1972 and 1973 Pioneer spacecrafts. Technological advances in the five-year span between the Pioneer launch and Voyager launch would allow for a more complex message to be placed on the Voyager spacecrafts. A gramophone record as the carrier meant the message could include music— “a credible attempt to convey human emotions,” as Sagan described in Murmurs of the Earth, his account of the entire endeavor.
Beyond music, what could encapsulate humanity in its truest, best-consolidated form? How would a life form without human, or even terrestrial context, react to the information? What could be the simplest way to tell the most epic origin story of all time? In an exercise of extraterrestrial experience design, the team mulled over these questions, and in the end, decided on the following content: 115 images that ranged from DNA structures to a pregnant woman, a 12-minute compilation of “sounds of earth” including wind, whale songs, bird calls and thunder, 55 greetings in different languages, 90 minutes of music of a variety of styles, including Mozart, an hour-long recording of brainwaves, and printed messages from President Jimmy Carter and UN Secretary Kurt Waldheim. “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 hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe,” wrote President Carter.
“The largest narrative was: this is our planet and this is us,” says Lomberg, who helped to visualize the message. Previously working with Sagan on the Emmy award-winning COSMOS television show, creating beautiful space art and animation for the episodes, he adds that Sagan, from the onset, wanted the message to be from the whole world— not just NASA or the United States. Though there existed an inevitably Western slant, the team strived to present an unbiased view of humanity: when Lomberg was crafting the image montage, he wanted to tell important stories, including how a human being is made, from conception to birth, how society rears children, what we build, how we eat, how we travel, and how civilization is, essentially, a strange combination of individual achievements and group activities. Lomberg and astronomer Frank Drake also designed the famous cover with the map to decoding it all. “Someone asked me recently if they could get a tattoo of it on their chest,” he jokes. “I replied, ‘Only if you send me a photo.’” To play a part of perhaps the longest-lasting work of human art, one that will last hundreds of thousands of years, he admits, is an incredible feeling.
Most people, including Lomberg and Sagan, agree that the probability of the Voyager spacecraft being intercepted by an alien life form is slim to none. “Space is enormous and this is a tiny ship,” Lomberg admits. But the project is meant for terrestrials as much as extraterrestrials: the planet we have learned the most about, through space exploration, is Earth, says Lomberg. He recalls the first time he heard of the Pioneer spacecrafts launching with the plaques inscribed with a message from Earth, and how he was overcome by awe and trepidation at the same time. For him, it was “as electrifying as watching someone land on the moon.” The feeling that someone or something else, beyond an ocean of galaxies, just might be reading your message— it’s science fiction melting into real life.
Lomberg wants others participating in the New Horizon’s project to feel that same, goose-bump-inducing feeling that comes from contemplating life existing beyond the Earth. But, this time around, things are different:
“The world has changed a lot since 1977. That portrait of the Earth [the Voyager Golden Records] is now a historical portrait. That’s how the Earth was. It’s not how the Earth is. So it’s time to update it and we want to involve people in a much greater way than they could have been with our previous project.”
Crowdsourcing, an idea-child of the technology age, allows for a massive number of people to participate, as opposed to the six-person team from before. This time, the message can truly be one from all of humanity.
The biggest challenge is creating a platform capable of storing all this information, organizing, and presenting it. In reviving this project, Lomberg wants to create an opportunity for humans to think beyond ourselves and our differences.
One major criticism of the Voyager Golden Records were that they presented too positive a view of humanity. Even though they were created in the midst of the Cold War, at a time when nuclear annihilation seemed all but inescapable, Sagan and Drake made the decision to showcase the light over the dark— they wanted to put humanity’s best foot forward. “If it survives and we’re already gone, why not let the best of us survive rather than the worst of us?” Lomberg reasons. But, with the New Horizons message, Lomberg thinks that the crowdsourced content will tell a different story. Over the years, he believes, a very important new narrative has emerged: a global awareness of the problems created through centuries of mistreatment of our planet, and of each other. War, injustice and death are all part of it; there’s no way to tell the story without their inclusion, he says. It’s just a matter of how, and how much.
So, how far can these messages go? To get a sense of the vastness of the Milky Way galaxy, one needs only a stride through Lomberg’s other project: a scaled, interactive model of the galaxy made up of living flowers and plants. Located in Hawaii, the garden stretches 100-feet-long, with every foot representing 1000 light years. In this swirl, there are gold dust croton plants with yellow specks that represent stars, and hibiscus flowers to symbolize giant gas clouds. Other plants represent small nebulae, dusts and gases, and globular clusters. Deep in the maze, you’ll find the minor Orion Arm in which our solar system is held, and our solar system, a tiny earring on a leaf on a singular bush. It’s actually 1,000 times smaller than the piece of jewelry, but, surrounded by a few other crystal earrings showing the location of Earth and Sun and other stars nearby (and also generously scaled up for educational purposes), in terms of the garden galaxy, the Voyager probes haven’t even traveled the length of a leaf yet.
It’s enough to make you feel small. Really small. But, to Lomberg, that’s the wrong way to think about our place in the universe. This perspective effect, he believes, should not be confused with significance. Our city is one of many cities, he relates, our world one of many worlds, galaxy one of many galaxies. And our universe? As Kurt Vonnegut, Sagan’s fellow humanist colleague might say, “So it goes.”
“We’re a fantastically complicated world. I think it’s amazing that for such small and short-lived creatures, we’ve figured out so much about the universe. We’ve discovered we live in a galaxy. We are making these attempts to go to the other planets and study the universe. Those are some of the things that make me proud to be human,” Lomberg states. “There’s no absolute big or no absolute small. Only bigger or smaller. Wherever you find yourself on this great chain of being, you’re significant.”
If you had the chance to explain to an extraterrestrial what life was like on Earth, what would you share and how would you share it’? Let us know in the comments below.
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