‘Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record’, 1978

Exhibit / July 17, 2017

Object Name: Murmurs of Earth
Maker and Year: Carl Sagan et al. authors, Ballantine Books, 1978
Object Type: Book
Image Source: Exhibit author
Description: (Michael Grasso)

Murmurs of Earth was published the year after the 1977 launch of the twin space probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. While the Voyager program’s primary mission was to survey, photograph, and analyze the planets of the outer solar system, the book focuses on our attempts to communicate with whatever intelligent entities might encounter the probes as they flew headlong into the interstellar night. On board each of the Voyager probes is a Golden Record, a multimedia record album made from copper plated in gold. The album contains not only audio in the form of music, laughter, a soundscape of Earth and greetings in over 100 Earth languages, but also still images encoded as audio in the grooves of the record (achieved by a tiny Colorado video production company, the only outfit experimenting with this method that could produce the transfer on short notice).

Each of the book’s chapters is written by one of the Voyager project’s figures, with Sagan taking duty on the first and final chapters. In his introduction, Sagan recalls attending the 1939 World’s Fair, its theme of “the World of Tomorrow,” and the Time Capsule enshrined on the fairgrounds, relating it to the Golden Record’s secondary mission: being a “message in a bottle.” To that end, Frank Drake‘s chapter details past efforts at communication with extraterrestrial intelligence, including his and Sagan’s efforts as members of the Order of the Dolphin with John C. Lilly. Other chapters include Jon Lomberg describing the team’s decisions on which images to include (Lomberg would go on to become one of the main artists for Sagan’s 1980 television series and book, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage), and Linda Salzman Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Timothy Ferris on the greetings, “sounds of Earth,” and musical selections included on the disc, respectively.

The real value of Murmurs of Earth is the inclusion of all the materials on the Golden Records. All 116 images on the Golden Record are included (some in full color), along with transcriptions of all the greetings (including one by Sagan’s then eight-year-old son Nick, the representative for the English language: “Hello from the children of planet Earth”), thoughtful summaries of the sounds of Earth, and the history behind each musical selection by then-Rolling Stone editor Ferris. In addition to this commentary, all the authors point out the fraught philosophical and ideological discussions around deciding who and what to include in this “message in a bottle.” Sagan and Drake recall the controversy around the nude figures on the Pioneer 10 and 11 plaques with some bemusement, while Lomberg and Sagan discuss the conscious decision not to send images or sounds that depict or represent mankind’s traditions of war and religious belief.

Murmurs of Earth is very sadly long out of print. It only received one publication edition in 1978 (softcover in 1979) and was republished in 1992 in multimedia format during the CD-ROM fad, but has not been republished since then. It would seem the 40th anniversary of the launches of Voyager 1 and 2 would be a great opportunity to reintroduce a new generation to the decision-making process of our first concerted multimedia message to an extraterrestrial intelligence.

7 thoughts on “‘Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record’, 1978

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