Murmurs of Sagan


“This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, out thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.” – a message from Jimmy Carter, on the Voyager Golden Record

On August 20th, 1977, when the Voyager 1 spacecraft left the Earth for an everlasting adventure, Carl Sagan made sure it had our personality attached to it. After almost thirty-seven years and two Cosmos television series later, this little-spacecraft-that-could has left our solar system and entered uncharted territory, or interstellar space.

With Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey bringing us up to date with what Cosmos discussed, one can hear Carl Sagan’s name getting bounced around once again. After all, the host of the new television series, Neil Degrasse Tyson, was greatly influenced by Sagan when, at seventeen, he visited the Cornell campus, where Sagan was teaching. Tyson never forgot how generous Sagan—a pretty big deal by that point—was with his time. At that time, Sagan was less than two years away from organizing a committee to launch what will no doubt be his most enduring legacy: The Voyager Golden Record. Mentioned briefly in the first episode of the new Cosmos series, the close up of the record is a reminder of how far it has traveled in the last three decades.

Although Sagan wrote numerous books that have remained in print long after his passing in 1996, his work on the twelve-inch Golden Record will be how his name lasts with each new century. In the 1978 book, Murmurs of Earth, Sagan, along with Ann Druyan, who was an executive producer and head writer of the Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, described in detail the process of creating the Golden Record.

After extensive meetings and hours of discussions, Sagan decided, among others, on four pieces of American music: A Navajo night chant, Louis Armstrong’s  “Melancholy Blues”, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, and “Dark Was the Night,” by Blind Willie Johnson—a song with lyrics described as a wordless moan, and, according to Timothy Ferris, a producer of the Voyager record, “one of the most fundamentally moving pieces of music ever recorded.”

Sagan and the team were searching for a sense of “cosmic loneliness” in their sound. They did consider the Beatles, however the world famous band did not own the copyright to “Here Comes the Sun”, their favorite among the quartet’s songs, and were moved aside. “…the legal status of the piece seemed too murky to risk,” Sagan wrote.

There is of course a wide variety of music on the record. Three Bach compositions made it on. In fact, if an alien race were to obtain the record and play the music side first, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F, First Movement, would be the first sounds they hear. Other highlights on the Record include a Japanese Shakuhachi—a bamboo flute—first played by a samurai named Kinko Kurosawa, the song titled “Cranes in Their Nest.” Ferris described the song as a “birdlike cry appropriate to Voyager’s lonely flight through space.”

And what a lonely flight it is. In Murmurs of Earth, Sagan predicted that there might be a chance, in tens of thousands of years, that the two Voyager messengers could be relatively close to a star called AC +79 3888, where the chances of meeting something, anything, will increase a minuscule. During that trip, the outer side of the Golden Record, protected by an aluminum cover, will be damaged by tiny micrometeorites (around 2% of damage, to be more specific). On that riskier, outer side of the record rests all of the music mentioned above, except good ol’ Bach. The inner side of the record will, according to Sagan, “survive essentially forever”.

And what did Sagan imagine the aliens would think of us after analyzing the Golden Record?

They would wonder about us. They would know that 60,000 years is a long period of time in the history of civilizations. They would recognize the tentativeness of our society, its tenuous acquaintance with technology and wisdom together. Had we destroyed ourselves or had we gone on to greater things?

Through new television shows, his books, a highly protected record that is set to breach the Milky Way, there are murmurs of Carl Sagan all around us. We could not have had a fairer, more considerate representative of the human race.