The Vinyl Frontier: The Story of the Voyager Golden Record
(Bloomsbury Sigma, $28)
“The mission was an endeavor for incurable romantics,” said Jim Daley in Scientific American. In 1977, astrophysicist Carl Sagan was asked by NASA to devise a way to express greetings from Earth to any alien that came across either of the two Voyager space probes soon to be launched. The team Sagan assembled decided that music represented humanity best, and so created a pair of gold-plated phonograph records dominated by a 90-minute playlist of their choosing. Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” won a place alongside Bach, Stravinsky, and whale songs. Then the selections were blasted off into the cosmos—“in the hope that somewhere someone might be listening.”
The project was “very much a team effort,” said Ned Lannamann in The Stranger. In Jonathan Scott’s energetic new account of the project, Sagan’s collaborators recall needing first to decide how to communicate with a species that would know no earthly languages, then choosing to include a diagram of the hydrogen atom—plentiful throughout the universe—as a potential Rosetta Stone. Scott, a music journalist, “has a tendency to imagine conversations for which the documentary record is spotty,” said Matthew Stanley in ScienceMag.com. Still, he “tells the tale well,” and he reports when the memories of participants don’t align. Astrophysicist Frank Drake claims, for example, that the song “Here Comes the Sun” was pulled because the Beatles refused to participate, but science writer Tim Ferris claims to have ditched the tune because he considered it simply not good enough.
Though the record generally shows humanity at its best, “there are blemishes,” said Jake Kerridge in The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). For one, the music choices show a Western bias. And though the work of Richard Wagner was barred because of its Nazi associations, the recordings opened with a greeting from the United Nations’ Kurt Waldheim, whose Nazi past was uncovered only later. But forget the mistakes; “the mad optimism that drove this project says something rather wonderful about human beings.”