Decoding Nasa’s Message To Extraterrestial Life In Space

Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist author and self-proclaimed science evangelists she is the creator of a podcast series called Science Underground she joins Hari Sreenivasan now to discuss how to decode the NASA Time Capsule of Earth from 1977 called the Golden Record.

TRANSCRIPT

Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist, author and self-proclaimed science evangelist.

She's the creator of a podcast series called 'Science Underground.'

She joins me now to discuss how to decode a NASA time capsule of Earth from 1977 called the Golden Record.

Yeah, okay.

If that's an image of the Golden Record, how in the world is a hopefully smarter life form going to make sense of that?

Well, you definitely have to be Sherlock Holmes or the equivalent of that in space to decode it.

This was what the cover looked like.

Uh-huh.

The Golden Record was inside of this aluminum cover, and if you think about it, it had music.

It had songs, and it had images, but how do you tell an extraterrestrial how fast to spin it?

Yeah.

See, a minute is based on Earth.

Time.

But a minute doesn't mean the same thing, so you have to give extraterrestrials information about to do that.

Okay.

And so that's what this is doing.

It's telling them how fast to spin it.

Okay.

And so in space the most popular thing out... Or one of the things that you can use is hydrogen, and for, you know, if we want to be general about it, hydrogen vibrates, and you can use its vibration as the unit of time.

So they used hydrogen time to tell extraterrestrials, 'Okay, you need to spin this at this rate,' you know, 33 or 16 revolutions per minute, 'based on hydrogen time.'

That's supposed to be hydrogen time?

That's what this is telling us.

That's right.

Okay.

Also, NASA was kind enough to actually put a stylus, the needle of the record, inside of the capsule as well, so you...

Oh.

That's always good.

That's right.

So this is also telling them how to play the stylus as well.

Ah, okay.

So this code is sort of like dashes and dots, which is this Morse code that they kind of made out of hydrogen time.

Okay, so that's... What are there, 33 little dashes or something?

It was actually 16 revolutions per minute.

Sixteen, oh.

They wanted to put 90 minutes of music on there, so they slowed down the time.

Okay, got it.

Yeah.

And then what's that big star-looking thing at the bottom?

Ah.

This is a map of where the record came from.

That's us in the universe?

That is us.

It is giving us... These are signposts.

There are stars out there called pulsars, pulsating stars.

Mm-hmm.

You can think of them as lighthouses.

Each of them have their own different beats.

Maybe one is doing this and one is doing this.

Mm-hmm.

And there's 14 of them, and they were saying, 'Look.

If you're at that pulsar, point in that direction.

If you're in that pulsar, point in that direction.'

And that center point is Earth, so it's telling extraterrestrials where this record came from.

Okay, and what looks like a seismograph, Richter scale...

Now, this is very confusing.

If this wasn't confusing, this is extremely confusing, but what they also did is, they actually put images on a record.

And so they explained, 'Okay, this is how you detect the image, and the first image you should see is a circle in a box.'

So that's what this is telling them.

Oh, my gosh.

Yeah.

It's...These are engineers.

They're not, you know, they're not in marketing.

And we're assuming that aliens perceive with similar senses, that they would have eyes...

That's right.

That's right.

...that could see this, that they would have something, tentacles, fingers...

That's right.

...to touch.

The senses that we... First of all, it's really a long shot that an extraterrestrial is going to pick this up.

Yeah.

It's more than a needle in a haystack.

It's the possibilities, so...

Or it could just bump into some planet that's uninhabited and just crash.

It could, but that will be billions of years from now.

That's right.

And beyond when Earth... Earth will already be gone before that actually happens, but it's more of the exercise of how to create something to communicate with another life-form.

Carl Sagan was the leader of this program for the NASA Golden Record, and so he wanted to actually use this, you know, as a beacon, if you will.

How do we connect with extraterrestrials?

How do we convey things like time?

How do we convey things like location?

So it was more of that exercise than anything else.

What did we learn about ourselves and about language and about kind of distilling the essence of communication?

Because that's kind of what we had to do for this.

That's right.

I mean, it was a fantastic experiment to say, 'Okay, what is human?'

So they put images.

They put greetings of hello from different languages.

They put sounds of the Earth, like a baby's cry, a heartbeat, and then they put about 30 songs onto the record that represent all of the planet.

Now, the story is that some of the songs that they put onto the record didn't really represent the entire planet.

Mm-hmm.

They were mostly Bach and Beethoven and Mozart, and that doesn't really represent the entire globe, but if it wasn't for this gentleman Alan Lomax who was a song hunter... He went all over the world looking for folk songs.

What are the songs of the people?

He actually shifted what was on the mixtape, for lack of a better term, so that it was representative.

It had drums.

It had fiddles.

It had choruses from Russia.

It had all these different songs that represent the entire planet.

So if we're going to make something that represents the entire planet, he really made the Golden Record the way it should be.

And that's also the music that was available or popular in 1977, so it's a really... It is a time capsule.

It's a point in time of the types of bases... There's a very good chance that those hellos, the people that recorded them, some of them have passed on, right?

Might have, yeah.

Yeah.

Some of those... I don't think all of the languages, but, you know, we know that centuries from now, some of those languages won't exist.

So it really is a snapshot, if you will, of 1977.

I mean, is there something that was missing?

I mean, there is only a finite amount of space.

It seems like, what missing, right?

There's all this other stuff that we wish we could have shared.

That's right.

But that was also the recording device of record at the point.

Right.

We don't have spinning hard disks.

We couldn't have put in more data.

I mean, the kind of data you're talking about, a few dozen songs and some images and audio, that's nothing now.

That's right.

Our iPod...

People could have everything that's on here as a ring tone.

That's right.

If you said, 'Oh, I have 30 songs,' they'd be like, 'What's wrong with you? Are you okay?'

Yeah.

Actually, cassette tapes were around, but the simplicity of the record was perfect because you can just bolt it to the side of the Voyager.

If you put a cassette tape, now you have to put a player.

You have to put all these other technologies, and how the heck do you designate, 'All right.

This is how fast it should spin, and this is how the head should look on top of the tape.'

Much more complex, and also the tape isn't as robust, but a metallic record is simple.

You know, Edison created something very simple by just putting some bumps on a piece of tin, and he was able to record sound.

It's something very similar.

And this is... It's actually gold?

It's not.

Well, it's a gold layer on top of a metal.

And so do they feel like it is going to survive the ravages of radiation in space or...

Yeah, well...Absolutely.

The only thing it might suffer are, there are little micrometeoriods in space that might gash it, and so that's the reason why they actually put a cover on this because they were just going to bolt the record, but if you... You know, for those who know about records, you get these skips, and the music doesn't continue so they...

That'd be the worst...

Yeah.

...space dust causing hiccups in the hellos.

That's right, and the records cost $25,000 to make, and all of a sudden you get space dust, you know, busting it up.

All right.

Ainissa Ramirez, thanks so much.

Thank you.