When astronomers sent Chuck Berry and Bach to dance among the stars

|     James Hill     |

EVEN though the 200th anniversary celebration of American independence was spectacular, nostalgia isn’t a mood we often ascribe to the 1970s.

Watergate happened, and the ramifications are still felt today. Inflation raged, gasoline lines became common, cars were crummy, and the clothing was god-awful. Worse, we seemed to be failing at fighting the Cold War.

In other words, a lost decade.

But the 1970s had their moments. One, recounted well by British journalist Jonathan Scott, involved the effort to leave some semblance of our earthly presence aboard the Voyager spacecraft, which are still going – and going, and going – 42 years after their launch.

They may still be going a billion or more years from now, which was not lost on those who proposed and then pushed for what is now known as the Voyager Golden Record.

The Vinyl Frontier: The Story of the Voyager Golden Record by Jonathan Scott. – BLOOMSBURY SIGMA

First, though, there had to be a precedent. And lo and behold, the precedent was aboard the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft that NASA had launched in the early 1970s: the Pioneer plaques. One of the people involved in producing the plaques – which generated a mini-scandal of sorts because the human figures were nude – was Carl Sagan, a scientist at Cornell University.

“Sagan was already a well-known astronomer, with a growing public profile, but he was not yet the household name he would become,” Scott writes. Nevertheless, he did know John Casani of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who had encouraged for the coming Voyager mission an effort similar to the Pioneer plaques. As he urged: “Send a message!”

And what a message it was. Once put together, the Golden Record consisted of music; greetings in several languages, including from then-United Nations (UN) Secretary General Kurt Waldheim (since discredited for his Nazi service in World War II), United States (US) President Jimmy Carter and selected members of Congress; along with sounds and images of life on Earth.

Simple? Think again.

Scott’s book is a testimony to the amount of work that Sagan, who died in 1996, and his team put into the Golden Record, which was not vinyl but metal (copper), plated with gold. And while this is about the production of the record and not the Voyager mission itself, Scott does well mastering the technical details, often with a touch of humour.

“The ‘hydrogen line’ is the electromagnetic radiation spectral line that is created by a change in the energy state of neutral hydrogen atoms. I don’t really know what that means either,” the author admits on one of those occasions when he needs to dive into science-speak.

The narrative, though, shows a bit of a problem. One is that throughout the book, Scott tends to use first names. So Sagan becomes Carl; Ann Druyan, the

woman he fell in love with (and later married) at the time of the Golden Record project, is referred to simply as Ann; and on and on.

So many characters weave through the story that it becomes especially annoying when lesser ones pop up whom we aren’t familiar with on a first-name basis. One almost needs a programme to figure out whom he is writing about.

And while Sagan comes off as the hero of this story, Scott is clear that his romance with Druyan could have been a project-buster if it came to light (The couple waited until after the Voyager 2 launch to let the news out).

Scott assumes we already know a lot about the Voyager mission, but it’s probably a safe bet to say we don’t (Voyager 2 crossed the heliopause, where, according to Sarah Kaplan from The Washington Post, “the river of solar particles meets the vast ocean of interstellar space,” in December 2018).

The Pioneer and Voyager probes may turn out to be one of NASA’s greatest moments, yet we tend to view the period when they went up as something of a wasteland for the space agency: The lunar mission had ended, and the space shuttle was years away.

Still, there was an opportunity to be had for a grand tour. And NASA took it. That a plaque was aboard the Pioneers and a record was aboard both of the Voyagers are often seen as amusements.

“Even today, if you tell a person about the Voyager record – someone who’s not heard of it before – it excites head-scratching, furrowed brows and scepticism,” Scott notes.

Further, the fact that Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode is riding off to eternity was not lost on the talented writers in the early days of Saturday Night Live.

Appearing on the show in 1978, comedian Steve Martin announced that a message had come from aliens, begging, “Send more Chuck Berry.”

The Beatles didn’t make the cut. Neither did Elvis, Jefferson Starship or the Rolling Stones. What did was Berry, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Louis Armstrong and an obscure musician named Blind Willie Johnson, along with other forms of music from around the world.

A sceptic would say, What’s the point? And indeed, Scott notes that the intended audience, extraterrestrials, might never come upon the Golden Record. “The Voyagers aren’t ever going to land anywhere,” he writes. “Assuming they don’t get hit by anything, they will drift in a vast orbit around the Milky Way. They’ll be forever in deep space.”

Which leaves us to believe that this may have been what the team that envisioned and created the Golden Record intended all along. Kind of puts the 1970s in a different light, doesn’t it?

(Hill is a former senior editor for The Washington Post News Media Services).The Washington Post