Jon Lomberg “The Farthest” – Golden Record Spacecraft Voyager

Jon Lomberg “The Farthest” –  Exclusive Interview
Golden Record – Spacecraft Voyager

By Abbie Bernstein & Jennifer Kaplan

The Farthest - PBS - Voyager Golden Record

This may sound like science fiction, but it is actually science fact: the Golden Record is one of the most famous parts of the spacecraft Voyager. Voyager I is a probe that was launched by NASA on September 5, 1977; Voyager II actually launched sixteen days earlier, on August 20, 1977. They are two of only five known artificial objects to have left our solar system. The Golden Record is a collection of Earth sounds – natural noises, voices, music – designed to be played by any intelligent life forms that may encounter Voyager in its travels.

Jon Lomberg, a space artist and science journalist, was integral in creating the Golden Record. Lomberg, who collaborated with Carl Sagan for twenty years, had an asteroid named for him in 1998 by the International Astronomical Union in honor of his contributions to science communication.

Lomberg is in attendance when PBS throws a party on the rooftop of the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California for the Television Critics Association (TCA). The event celebrates THE FARTHEST, PBS Nova’s presentation about the Voyager program, re-airing Wednesday, September 13, and PBS Nova’s DEATH DIVE TO SATURN, also airing Wednesday, September 13 (check local listings).

Lomberg is wearing a shirt that has an image of the Golden Record. “It’s [from a company] called Cotton Science. I saw it on the Internet, and I said, ‘Hey, I did that shirt. If you send me one, I’ll send you a picture of me wearing it.’ So they did, and I did.”

He explains that Voyager has “The record, but there’s also a cartridge and stylus. The picture shows the record top view and side view, and how you put the cartridge and stylus on it, and this shows how long it takes to go around once, and this shows how long it takes to play the whole side, and this shows how some of the signals on the record are to be converted from video signals into pictures. Now, that’s the hard part. If you were not a video engineer, you would look at my shirt and say, ‘Well, I don’t recognize anything.’

“If [whoever finds the record will] look at the vibrations – most of it is sound, whether it’s music or people talking – and natural acoustic sound has a certain kind of wave. We think that if any life develops on a planet with an atmosphere, there will be sound there, and animals evolve hearing because hearing is a good, long-range sense to warn you of predators, so they’ll recognize sound. They may even recognize, ‘Oh, that’s thunder, that’s surf, that’s rain, we have that on our planet.’ And then they have to figure out the rest of the sounds. But some of the waves are not acoustic waves. There are these weird waves, and what they have to do is figure out that these are the waves that can be reconstructed into a picture, and the picture that’s shown is a circle, and that is in fact the first picture that’s recorded. So if they figure it out, they’re playing with it, and somehow they make a circle, they’ll go, ‘Wait a minute, that’s what’s on the cover.’ This becomes a circle.”

Regarding the origins of the Golden Record, Lomberg says, “Frank Drake, who is the guiding genius behind the record, he was the one that figured most of it out. Then we had all these elements, and he asked me to put them all together into one design, and I drew it. It took me about three hours to draw it, and the estimated lifetime of it is a thousand million years.”

Is that how long the Golden Record is expected to physically last, or how long it would take to listen to everything on it? Lomberg laughs. “That’s how long it lasts. Because space is very, very empty. But occasionally, a tiny grain of dust will hit the surface of the record and make a little micro crater. So the question is, how long does it take before you completely wear away the surface? How long does it take the dust to wear through that box and destroy this drawing? And the conservative answer is, a thousand million years. It may be two or three thousand million years. But that’s a long time. And how many artists get a chance to draw something that lasts a thousand million years? So I’m happy.”

In his designs for the Golden Record, Lomberg tried to imagine who or what might wind up listening to it. “I had a lot to do with the sound design, and in both the sequence of sound and the sequence of images, we chose evolutionary sequence. In other words, first we showed natural sounds of the Earth and images of the Earth. Then we showed sounds and images of life, and finally, we showed sounds and images of humans and what we do. So if they understand the sequence of the sounds, it will help them understand the sequences of the images, and vice-versa.

“In general, I worked on constructing the hundred and twenty pictures that we included. And our goal was not to have them be a hundred and twenty random pictures, but a story, so that there would be more information in the way they were assembled in sequence. For example, we had certain images that we showed again and again, like the human hand doing all kinds of different things, since that’s so important, or water, how water is so involved in everything we do, whether it’s building our cities by rivers, or sailing boats across the ocean, or drinking water, or snowflakes. So we emphasize water in many pictures. So we hope that by careful looking at the entire picture package, they’ll understand something more than they would just from a hundred and twenty random pictures.”

The Golden Record

The Golden Record is a collection of Earth sounds – natural noises, voices, music – designed to be played by any intelligent life forms that may encounter Voyager in its travels.

The Golden Record wasn’t originally part of the Voyager project, Lomberg relates. “This was a sort of an add-on, a very inexpensive, last-minute invitation that Carl Sagan received to put some kind of message on this spacecraft, because they’re only the third and fourth objects to leave the solar system that humans have ever made. They’ll outlast our planet, they’ll outlast our sun. They may be the only record that we ever existed. So NASA said, ‘If somebody finds this spacecraft in the far future, it’s never going to land on another planet, so it would have to be found by somebody else in a spacecraft, which means they have high technology. So they’ll understand our technology – it’ll be very primitive to them, but they’ll recognize the antenna, they’ll recognize the cameras, they’ll figure out the power source, they’ll figure out what everything is. But then there’s this thing that has no function, this funny disc that isn’t connected to anything, it’s just bolted on. What the heck could that be?’ And we hope that they’re motivated enough to try to figure out the instructions and play the record and learn what we would want to know if we found a spacecraft like this. ‘Who sent it? What were they like?’ And the purpose of the record is to tell them that.”

Voyager II is still transmitting back to Earth. Meanwhile, Lomberg is working on a new attempt to communicate with our interstellar neighbors, which all are invited to join. “The next spacecraft to leave the solar system after Voyager was New Horizons, which was launched a mission, and it flew by Pluto a couple of years ago. And it will also leaves the solar system. And when it was launched, I thought, ‘Well, the Voyager record was 1977. The technology in 2006 – would they have some quanto-, nano-, superconducting computer for a Voyager record?’ But they didn’t put anything. And that seemed to me a real lost opportunity. But then I thought, ‘Well, it’s too late to put a physical record on it, but maybe we could put a digital message in the computer. And there it will remain until somebody may find it and figure it out.’ The main difference, besides it being digital, is that when we did the Voyager record, we did it in six weeks. That’s how long we had to do it. And it was a handful of us, very presumptuously deciding to speak for the whole of humanity. But that’s the only way it could get done.

“But now, because of the Internet, instead of me picking a great picture of a mother and child, let’s have everybody be able to submit their own picture of a mother and child, and let everybody else decide what’s the best one. So we open up the process and really make it a self-portrait of what people want to say, and let everybody else decide, ‘Yes, this is the picture we want to send,’ of animals, of people, of cities, of whatever they want. So that’s a project that’s in its formation now. We have a Kickstarter that [launched] on August 20, the fortieth anniversary of Voyager, because I don’t think there’s a week that’s gone by that I haven’t gotten, as I say, some communication from somebody who is inspired. But it’s time for a new one. It’s not the world of 1977 anymore. The world is so different that it’s time for a self-portrait of Earth that reflects the way we’ve changed and progressed, and the problems, and everything else about what our world is now, and that’s the purpose of this new project.”

Earth has something in common with a number of other planets and moons – H2O, or water. But was this known at the time of Voyager’s launch? “Not really,” Lomberg replies. “We knew so little about the outer solar system. At that point, it was still controversial [whether] water ice existed on Mars. Now, water is a very plentiful compound, it’s not rare, it shouldn’t be rare, and since we knew that the outer solar system was icy, it was a pretty good guess that some of that ice was water ice. But we certainly didn’t know about the oceans under the crust of Europa, we certainly didn’t know about the oceans that have turned out to be under the crusts of Ganymede and now Enceladus [moon of Saturn] and perhaps other worlds as well. That was one of the things Voyager discovered that was completely unexpected.”

Is humanity meant to learn anything from the Golden Record, or does it exist strictly so that whatever is out there can learn about us? “There are really two audiences for the Golden Record,” Lomberg notes. “[There is] the extraterrestrial audience, and we’ll never know if there is one. But there’s the human audience, everybody on Earth for the last forty years who’s heard about the Voyager record, and I don’t think there’s a week that’s gone by that I haven’t gotten a letter from somebody with a question, or with a work of art, or a symphony, or an opera, or a stage play that was inspired by the Voyager record. I think the reason is that people have a latent interest in space. When you start talking about the chemical composition of the gases of the Jovian atmosphere, not many people care about that. The scientists do, and it is very important, but not most people.

“But if you say, ‘We’re sending a message to describe humanity to somebody else,’ everybody knows what that means, and everybody has their own idea of what they might send. And I think that’s one reason why the Voyager project has been so important, because it’s something that everybody can understand, and whether it’s found or not, as a gesture, almost as an artistic gesture, almost as a piece of performance art, to say, ‘We’ve advanced to the point where we can send spacecraft with messages to other stars. Isn’t that fantastic?’ The next time you get bummed out by politics and the state of the world and the terrible problems we face, something like Voyager I think is something that can give you hope. And I think that’s the real value of the Golden Record. It’s a hopeful gesture, it’s an optimistic gesture, and it’s one that I think people feel very emotional about, and that’s the secret of its success.”

So does Lomberg think that the idea behind the Golden Record, of perhaps communicating with extraterrestrials, can perhaps motivate people to communicate with one another better?

“I observed the whole [Voyager] mission from its launch until its final encounter in 1989 – the only thing I can compare it to is a symphony orchestra, or perhaps a really topnotch sports team, where everyone works together so perfectly and achieves something that nobody could do on their own, but it’s a great collective achievement. And to me, that’s an example of how we should act in every way. And we don’t. I mean, the world is a pretty sorry place, and we have so many problems. But I think knowing that there is some way that people can express the best of what we can do and work together and cooperate and do these achievements that are the product of thousands of people’s collective labor and brilliance, that’s a real symbol for hope and optimism. If we can send Voyager to the stars, certainly we can solve our own problems. So in a way, I think far beyond what we learned about Jupiter and Saturn and all the rest, the real value is, if we can do things like this, if we can put our minds to it, we can do anything.”
By Abbie Bernstein & Jennifer Kaplan

The Farthest – Voyager in Space

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Jon Lomberg “The Farthest” –  Exclusive Interview Golden Record – Spacecraft Voyager
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Jon Lomberg “The Farthest” – Exclusive Interview Golden Record – Spacecraft Voyager
The Golden Record is a collection of Earth sounds – natural noises, voices, music – designed to be played by any intelligent life forms that may encounter Voyager in its travels.
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Abbie Bernstein

Abbie Bernstein

Abbie Bernstein is an entertainment journalist, fiction author and filmmaker. Besides Buzzy Multimedia, her work currently appears in Assignment X.
Abbie Bernstein