Opinion

Voyager 1's galactic mixtape, extending a hand of welcome to the universe 

Making a compilation of music for somebody else is one of life’s rich joys. The scientists who included one on Voyager 1 would agree

Voyager 1. Image: Nasa; commons.wikimedia.org

Voyager 1 has woken up. Out there, in interstellar space, tens of billions of miles from us, beyond the solar wind, lost in that great silent dark both the Voyager satellites move ahead.  

For some time, Voyager 1 had been transmitting gibberish. It’s hardly surprising. It launched in 1977. Over 12 years ago it had already gone further than any other man-made object ever. But rocket scientists, being, you know, rocket scientists, set about fixing it. I struggle to find the stopcock to fix a leaky tap. They had to repair a broken computer chip on something 15 billion miles away. 

And they did. So now this bundle of metal can keep telling scientists all manner of things. I don’t understand what they’re waiting to hear. Already, the Voyagers, initially conceived to give us some more information about Jupiter and Saturn, have been remarkable in what they’ve found – for instance, 23 new moons in the outer planets of our solar system. 

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All of this is dandy and no doubt helps our understanding of how the universe was formed (I don’t know if it does, but space experts frequently say such things) but that’s not why Voyager 1 and 2 are really interesting. They’re really interesting because of the record. 

Each Voyager carries a gold-plated record encrypted with the knowledge of life on earth. It’s a really glorious creation. It looks beautiful and it says something of the era in which it was conceived that the best way considered to carry information was on a 12-inch record. They’ve also sent a stylus and instructions for use. If life beyond us gets hold of it, and it’s not scratched, and they have a decent record player, secrets will unfold.  

There are sounds of humanity, of the wind, of laughter, there is a greeting in 55 languages, there is whale song (wouldn’t it be amusing if they thought whales ran the shop) and best of all is the music. Carl Sagan oversaw the compilation. This is the heart of things. There is a joyful innocence in thinking, you know, if we get beyond Ursa Minor, into Andromeda, and it’s picked up, I’ll do them a tape.  

Making a compilation of music for somebody else is one of life’s rich joys. It’s a sign of companionship, of sharing, of showing off (a bit) and of realising that when all is said and done, if hope has been lost, or feels temporarily suspended, there is always music.  

Until quite recently I did a radio slot on BBC Radio 5 Live with Colin Murray, one of the great broadcasters of our time (and an old pal). It was called Midnight Mixtape and was very straightforward. He’d pick a theme and invite listeners to suggest tunes. He and I would then settle on a selection of them. A huge community built around this very simple idea, and for each of them, each piece the music cargoed an ocean of emotion. It was a joy. And a simple wrinkle on an age-old thought. 

On that Voyager mixtape there is, amongst other things, Beethoven, a little Mozart, some music from Benin and Papa New Guinea peoples, there is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (the dramatic closing moment that many movie score writers have ripped off subsequently). And there is Bach, the only person to appear three times. 

There is an old cliché that Bach is so huge and glorious in the scope of what he wrote that he is evidence of the existence of God. It’s unlikely that saying has got as far as Ursa Minor but how hopeful it is that in the minds of great thinkers looking to extend a hand of welcome, it was Bach that was considered the one to properly, positively reflect mankind among life beyond. 

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter.

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