Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Seeking The Disco Planet


Alert-reader Robert (no city named) brought my attention to a hilarious ad on the Woot store, which pokes fun at the Voyager Golden Records. In a promotion for a portable Sansa player, one of the Wootbots asks, "Seriously, NASA, if Earthlings barely listen to LPs anymore, what makes you think Extraterrestrials will?"

The author then jibes, "It was a genius idea to include a record with images and sounds from our fair blue planet… but times have changed. Unless you expect us to be visited by an armada of interstellar DJs looking to search through our crates of wax for Terran beats, it might be time to update our technological image."

He then goes on to suggest sending Sansa's small media players into space instead, since their 4-Gigabyte storage capacity is preferable to being "the laughing stock of the galaxy" with our dated albums.

Reader Robert suggests politely that "The theory behind the record (including instructions on how to build a player) may be an interesting topic"...

…which, in the blogosphere, is the same as shouting, "Sic 'em!"

Voyager Probe
I've mentioned the Golden Records in past posts, while discussing Voyager Probes, and Carl Sagan, who chaired the committee for their creation in the late 1970s.

I believed then, and still hope now, that one will be found and at least partially understood. Will the recipient species correctly assemble the record player, and set the stylus to extract the audio and video (yes, there is video!) correctly? Will they have the sensory capability to "hear" and recognize what we call "music" or our idea of spoken greetings, even if they cannot translate the languages?

We can't know, and likely never will. As President James Carter put it, "This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours."

Humans may be long dead when these emblematic "time capsules" are handled by other life forms. By the same token, any message we find would not be from a civilization with which we could establish two-way communications, but archaeological remnants of a long-gone species.

If the situation were reversed, would we judge a civilization on the sort of "media" they transported? I highly doubt it. We cannot even imagine what sort of format in which an alien message might arrive, but we'd be so joyously excited to see it, we wouldn't be quibbling over whether it was 8-track or Betamax.

Golden Records
Click to see meaning of the etchings...

"Golden Record" is a misnomer, since they were actually created from copper, and then simply gold-plated. However, the more crucial step in preserving longevity was to place each in a case of electroplated Uranium-238, an isotope with a half-life of nearly 5 billion years! I don't think we'd achieve the same hardiness with memory cards that have a lower toughness factor than Tupperware. Sorry Woot!

In all fairness, it's possible that after only a billion years of travel, the Voyagers might be so increasingly damaged from micro-meteor impacts that the Golden Records could be rendered un-playable – that would be true for any materials traveling through space long enough.

Still, in comparison, it seems rather a poor idea to send a tiny electronic device encased in plastic, particularly one requiring a battery, due to the corrosive materials therein.

I know, I'm a real spoilsport. NASA 1, Wootbots 0.