Aliens could learn about us from math on Voyager’s Golden Record

The Voyager 1 probe, which launched 40 years ago today (Sept. 5), is humankind’s most distant physical emissary, at almost 13 billion miles (21 billion kilometers) from Earth. Voyager 1 and its sister-spacecraft, Voyager 2, which launched two weeks earlier in 1977, gave scientists their first close-up views of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. And the spacecraft famously carried with them what could be aliens’ first views of Earth, its inhabitants and their culture: copies of the Golden Record.

The astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan curated the record selections, and it carried sounds and music from Earth as well as greetings in 55 languages. But the record also contains encoded photos seeking to teach aliens the mathematics — or really, the measurements — needed to understand humans’ lives and their place in the universe.

“Whatever number of pictures we were going to be able to send, I thought it should be a coherent story, not a grab bag of unrelated things,” Jon Lomberg, the Golden Record’s design director, told Space.com. “What the sequence of pictures afforded us was the opportunity to tell a story about Earth … the sequencing, the subject matter, the repeated motifs, the symbology that we invented so we could tell them a lot more quantitative information about things in the pictures — the idea was to make it a coherent whole.” [The Golden Record in Pictures: Voyager Probes’ Message to Space Explained]

 

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“And within that whole, there were substories,” Lomberg added. “A story of how we eat, and a story of how we’re born, and a story of how we travel. Also, there were some recurrent kinds of tutorial aspects.”

Part of that tutorial, Lomberg said, was pairing images with silhouettes that told nonhuman viewers which parts of the photos were significant, or even how to interpret perspective (that more distant images appeared smaller). And another was to build a sense of scale —…

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