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The Geography of Space Exploration: The Vinyl Frontier (Book Review)

A mix-tape for all of humanity, love affairs, space probes destined for the interstellar void, and a tight deadline. Jonathon Scott’s story of the Voyager Golden Records is an effective time warp, with doubled edged food for thought that leaves a positive imprint of its subjects and events for the reader.

The Vinyl Frontier (2019) by Jonathan Scott. Bloomsbury Sigma. Available at your local independent book store and from Bloomsbury.com

There are seemingly endless ways to look at the Voyager Golden Record and wonder what exactly it is an artifact of. As Jonathan Scott recounts in Vinyl Frontier: The Story of the Voyager Golden Record, confronted with the topic, people vary from inspiration to ambivalence, and even to annoyance or disgust. Personally, as someone who’s PhD included a focus on governance and considerations of public and ethical legitimacy in policy, aspects of the Golden Record story horrify that tiny bit of too-serious academic hiding deep inside me. A group of scientists led by academic elites making decisions for all of humankind, with no democratic oversight, the horrid technocracy of it all!

However, the majority of my psyche, and likely other readers’, will either not have those intuitions or simply see the task for what it was. An ad hoc effort to do something genuinely well-intended by a group of enthusiasts swept up by their passions. At the same time, (that serious academic is rearing) the technocracy is there, and the elitism and western bias cannot be avoided. But, really, that just adds to the perfect imperfection of the Golden Record.

The Voyager Golden Records

In 1977, NASA launched two probes towards the outer solar system. By this time, the Apollo program was long-complete, having had its final Moon landing in 1972. The so-called “space race” was over, and space agencies had shifted their focus.

Russia was mastering Low Earth Orbit (the space nearest to Earth) with their new Soyuz program, a remarkable human spaceflight system that endures today as the most reliable and safest human spaceflight system ever built. With their prowess in human spaceflight, the Russians would go on to build the world’s first major space station (Mir) in the 1980s. The Americans, on the other hand, had mostly turned towards our planetary neighbors for the remainder of the 1970s. In 1975 they launched a pair of missions to Mars called Viking 1 and Viking 2, each consisting of a both a lander and an orbiter.

Building off of the infrastructure from previous programs called Pioneer and Mariner, NASA also built the two probes named Voyager 1 and Voyager 2; each would explore the gas giants in more detail than ever before. As luck would have it, if they hurried, they could take advantage of a rare alignment and catch glimpses of all four: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

NASA’s retro poster for what became known as the Voyager Grand Tour, two spacecraft, four planets and a half-dozen moons (Image: NASA/JPL)

As the trajectories were developed it was realized that the Voyagers would be on a path out of the Solar System, they would be travelling fast enough to totally escape the Sun’s gravity and sail into interstellar nothingness; the vast distance between solar systems.

While its entirely likely that no human-like creature will be alive when the Voyagers reach other solar systems, the probes themselves could act as a sort of message in a bottle from humanity. With this in mind, the Voyager team decided to send along a communique with the probe for the unlikely event that a future being encountered this strange object sailing through space. What became of this idea was the Voyager Golden Record, and its conception is where Jonathan Scott’s book picks up.

The Ultimate Mix Tape

Scott starts our journey by recounting a mix tape he once made for a girl he had hooked up with named Beth (by this time he was old enough to know that any inclusion of the Kiss song Beth would be morally reprehensible). It’s apparent that Scott lives outside the space bubble, and thank god for that. A music lover and accomplished writer he brings a good distance to the story and its cast of characters. By the end of the first few chapters, you recognize the author as a savvy Gen-X-er who isn’t interested in taking the reader on the dreaded trope of a “science is cool” narrative, but instead a personally-tinged, but journalistically (in the good way) rigorous trip though a frantic ‘making of’ tale.

From my position, the single best thing about Vinyl Frontier is that it begs interesting questions from the reader. For example, some the first ones I have scribbled in my own notes are:

“dick, but no vulva?”

“Is sending messages into space a big deal?”

That first reaction is in relation to the book’s retelling of the “scandalous” nature of etched plaques onboard Pioneers 10 and 11. Space probes I mentioned earlier that were launched a few years before the Voyager program (both Pioneers were eventually surpassed by the faster travelling Voyagers). In this instance a plaque onboard the Pioneers featuring sketches of naked humans that did not include any indication of the vulva, despite having lines to outline a penis and scrotum. This brief glimpses of the sexist ideals passing as norms of the time provides background for an issue that emerges again in the Voyager story.

The second note is a nagging one for me throughout the story. Are messages into space a big deal? In the event they are found, yes, they will be a very, very, big deal. But the odds of them ever being found are infinitesimally small. Nonetheless, does the potential impact, however unlikely, mean these messages should be carefully crafted in the public realm? It’s a question I don’t really have a definitive answer for. Scott doesn't wade into these waters too explicitly, but does point to perspectives that champion the ad hoc nature as being much quicker than any democratic process could have been.

This question of how the record should have been crafted begs both its political legitimacy as well as its cultural legitimacy in “representing Earth”. Scott often mentions the impossibility of the task, nothing thatthere would always be bias. Modern scholars would no doubt point to the western elitist interpretation of ‘world music’ included on the record and social scientist like myself have to refrain from scoffing a the technocratic hubris of the entire operation. Again, the Voyager Golden Record is far from a perfect representation of Earth, but it is perhaps a perfect representation of human imperfection.

The Golden Record Clique and a Missed Opportunity

The record was put together by a team of about 12–15 people, depending on how you count. The main contributors on the musical side of the operation were Jon Lomberg and Timothy Ferris, with inputs from the rest of the team: Frank Drake, Ann Druyan, and Linda Salzman-Sagan. And of course, Carl Sagan holding veto power as producer. A definitive (from the creators themselves) account of the making-of process is available in the book Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, written by the team in the immediate aftermath of the album’s release to the cosmos.

Murmurs of Earth, the definitive inside account of the Voyager Golden Record, to which Scott’s book isnow, IMHO, a necessary companion (Image: Random House)

I wont belabour the point of the ever-long debate over whether the record would be more legitimate if it had been done more openly (the clique kept it mostly hush hush). And one does have to concede that, especially with the tight timelines, its hard to imagine the record getting done so quickly via more-official channels. So let’s leave be what is done. The record was made the way it was, with a small group from a narrow selection of fields reaching out to select friends and colleagues and, on the down-low, putting together a mix tape to represent humanity. Even accepting the clique approach though, I still have one last quarrel, not with Scott, but with the record making process. I can’t help notice one missing figure from the time. Where the hell is Leonard Bernstein?

If you’ll allow me a short(-ish) digression, it is to me, worthwhile to point out a significant missed opportunity here. The record was being put together in the mid 1970s, by this time Leonard Bernstein was a world famous conductor, T.V. personality, and accomplished classical composer (he also created West Side Story, the greatest American musical of it’s time). He had also recorded a ground breaking series of Young People’s Concerts throughout the 1960’s and rose to household status as a skilled translator of musical history and theory outside of snobbish concert halls. Around the time of the Golden Record project, Bernstein was recording his Harvard Lectures, slightly more advanced discussions of musical theory also renowned for their clarity in dealing with such difficult topics.

With all due respect to famed science communicators, Bernstein could have taught circles around other figures in popular communication. Every teacher, musical or otherwise, should watch his Young People’s Concerts to observe how he slowly introduces simple ideas, puts them on top of each other, and eventually combines them for a full understanding of their complex whole. Selecting specific pieces of the Western Classical Traditional to represent the genre (which admittedly the Golden Record team may have given too much groove space) would have been ideal for Bernstein’s inputs. Similarly, in communicating the Voyager program and the Golden Record to popular audiences, Bernstein would have been an invaluable asset.

Lenny in the midst of teaching in one of his later TV specials (Image: CBS)

A fair question to ask when considering this fantasy pairing however is ‘what would Lenny have thought of the whole project?’ It’s hard to say, one music theorist friend of mine suggested that perhaps Lenny might not have been too comfortable with the idea of choosing some composers over others (could he possibly have left out his beloved Mahler?). It does make sense that for someone as immersed in western classical history as Bernstein, the ‘greatest hits of Earth’ approach the clique took just wouldn't have flown.

There are four composers of the Western Classical Tradition on the Record: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Stravinsky. With broad enough strokes, this does cover most major eras of western classical music. Bach was born in 1685, Mozart 1756, Beethoven 1770, and Stravinsky would have recently passed in 1971. Would Bernstein have been comfortable with Bach having 3 pieces while none of the rest of the Baroque period is covered? Interestingly, Mozart ends up representing western opera over Verdi or (thankfully) Wagner (The musical world’s von Bruan…or is that R. Strauss). Beethoven gets two pieces but there is a pretty significant gap as we run into Stravinsky’s 20th century Rite of Spring, a piece that oddly represents ballet on the record (though its easy to forget the Rite is somehow meant to be danced to…).

Familiar to audiences from Disney’s Dino-Apocalyptic sequence from the first Fantasia, Stravinsky’s rhythmic Rite of Spring made its way onto the Voyager Golden Record (Image: Disney)

Perhaps foremost, we can guess one gripe Bernstein might have had, his beloved romantic era isn’t truly represented. Beethoven may or may not count as a romantic, but the 5th Symphony and 13th String Quartet are not listed too often as representative of the era. Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Dvorak, and Mahler are all snubbed. With seven pieces reserved for western classical music, it would be fair to presume that Romanticism (perhaps the most popular classical era for 20th century listeners) would get strong representation. But fair enough, Bach is the master among masters, so his three selections are perhaps well earned.

Surprisingly, I wasn't able to dig up anything from interviews, biographies, or Bernstein’s own writings in which he talks about the Golden Record. To me it is striking, the biggest classical music celebrity in America appears to have never crossed paths, at least not on the record, with this venture to communicate music to alien civilizations. And maybe that’s it, re-read the sentence before this; “communicating music to aliens” does sound kinda ridiculous. Maybe Bernstein just wasn’t interested. But knowing the history of classical music’s diminished presence in western popular culture over the 20th century, it kinda sucks that the one person who was able to bring it into North American homes so brilliantly, in a charismatic and more confident way than Sagan did for planetary science, was never involved. Who knows, maybe Bernstein and Sagan’s respective egos would have clashed irreconcilably. Though, if you can work with Glenn Gould you can certainly work with Carl Sagan. Nevertheless, its certainly fun to imagine Lenny battling it out with Sagan over the need to have the sonata form represented.

The last part of this digression will be to point out an interesting decision the Golden Record team made. In the discussions to select the record’s musical playlist (there were also spoken pieces and encoded images), the team decided to leave out a sort of introduction to musical theory that would have been presented using only mathematics and known psychical laws of the universe. At one point, Jon Lomberg suggested introducing basic musical theory through single tones and the nested semi-tones within; then introducing octaves, fifths, thirds, harmony, and eventually even melody and rhythm.

Sagan apparently nixed the idea due to time restrictions on the record. Sagan may have been right, but I personally would have been willing to cut some of the classical and jazz pieces. Even better, the entire segment of greetings from world leaders could have been cut as they are surely gibberish compared to musical language that may be universal in its application. With Sagan being a physicist, its surprises me this idea didn’t get further than a single suggestion.

So here we are, my digression is over. But that’s one of the funny things about Scott’s book and the record itself. When you read the account of the team putting it together, you recognize that they couldn’t win. Nothing they chose could have pleased me and every other pseudo-music critic. Yet at the same time, its almost impossible to read about the project and avoid thinking “no, not that! This should be on instead!”.

Aliens or Humans

Enough musing about Leonard Bernstein, back to Scott’s actual book. Throughout the story the question organically arises, guided effectively by the author, is this a communication for aliens or just future (even current) humans? Its a good question. There is the possibility (perhaps as likely as aliens finding it) that a distant Earth/human civilization finds it before anyone else. If this Earthly civilization is, say, 100 thousand or 1 million years from now (hell it could be a billion years from now), it is possible that no trace of this current human civilization will exist (with the exception of a few select pieces of space junk that have orbits lucky enough not to decay into the Sun or other bodies). While Voyager isn’t coming back, some slick future humans (would they even be humans?) might develop technology capable of catching up to, and nabbing, Voyager. This indeed was the notion put forward by science fiction author Robert Heinlein who, in a fascinating letter to Sagan, also presented the plain fact that most humans wouldn’t be able to decipher what the team was doing, nevermind aliens.

Directions to Earth and instructions on how to use the record. Make sense? (Image: NASA/JPL)

What are the bloody odds that a) this is found b) the aliens figure out how to use it, and c) they come even close to interpreting it. Well c and b rely on a, and a is the lowest likelihood. As a whole, all three happening together is probably beyond any meaningful statistical representation (Drake Equation be damned). The biggest challenge is whether the aliens will know that much of the noise the record is playing is meant to be translated from sound waves into pixels, and thereby images. From a human perspective, there is a pretty healthy community that has developed amateur means of deciphering the Golden Record’s encoded images using various techniques. For example, a team at The Verge was able to use basic computer coding to do so. But much of these attempts begin with the known assumptions about senses and communication (something Heinlein warned Sagan extraterrestrials may not have even remotely similar concepts of) and knowledge of the fact that the various symbols on the record’s casing (see image above) represent different mathematical or physical constants acting as a sort of Rosetta Stone instruction manual. Because of all this, it has indeed been suggested that aliens might not stand a chance with the thing.

We Send in Peace?

The Voyager Golden Record purposefully left out humanity's shortcomings. There are no images of nuclear explosions or sounds of gunfire, and none of the songs are political pieces about, say, racism or poverty. It also includes over 50 messages from United Nations representatives about humanity reaching out in peace. This more than anything on the record is a almost entirely a symbolic gesture for contemporary purposes (though I suppose it could show aliens we have various ways of speaking).

One of my notes next to the discussion of the flowery and beautifully positive language recorded by UN representatives is “ha! aliens will see right through this”. What I mean is that in the event that a, b, and c all come together, our alien bottle-message recipients may chose to come visit us and find they’ve been honeypotted.

Imagine a civilization that stumbled on the Voyager’s signal and went and nabbed the thing right now. Also imagine that after decoding the record they can somehow come see us near-instantly. Tragically, they would not find a world aligned with the flowery messages of peace and love sent their way. They would see gross global inequality, environmental decay, and enough bloodshed in one day to let them know the trailer for planet Earth wasn’t exactly honest. In this sense the Voyager Golden Record is another reminder to the space exploration community: don’t just talk to the talk about ‘progress’, walk the walk.

“ We strive to live in peace with the peoples of the whole world” Nice try humans, you still got lots of growing up to do (Image: 20th Century Fox/Disney)

These are the kinds of scenarios you end up running through you head with this book, it is about both common things we can all relate to like funding, tight schedules, and romance (oh yes there is a love story) as well as existential questions about the nature of the universe, our cosmic loneliness, and the futility of it all. Intellectually, it is a wide-ranging book and I congratulate Scott on covering everything from the urbane to the philosophical with cleverness and enticing prose (even if he called Mozart German and seems to like Beethoven's Cavatina a little too much…it’s not THAT good).

A Hearty Goodbye and a Parting Challenge

Scott leaves us with endearing portraits of the later lives of his cast of characters as well as a nice conclusion to the love story that bubbles underneath throughout the book. Of course, in following up the lives of his main characters, there is tragedy. But this doesn’t affect the overall positive experience of reading the book. If you love both music and space exploration, this is must-read. If you like just one of those things, I would still argue strongly that it’s worth your time.

The ultimate mix tape? A lost art, an idea we have handed over to algorithms. Go ahead try. Make a mix to represent even just yourself, not even all of humanity. What would you chose? (Image: Pexels.com)

Vinyl Frontier leaves us with a challenge: using 1970’s technology, try to search out the materials for a Golden Record-type playlist. So, no internet or rapid communication with experts and peers. This parting challenge really does provide empathy for the Golden Record team. Even made today, the project would land far short of any sort of unanimous sense of representation. But try doing it in the mid 70’s, where correspondence with experts could take weeks, phone numbers were difficult to find, and there was no centralized medium for researching every single topic on the planet. Given the technology of the time, the project was bound to be profoundly limited in representing whatever it intended to represent. Therefore, the Voyager Golden Record team deserves praise for pulling off what is still a good record (like Bad good, but not Thriller great). At the same time, praise should be given to Jonathon Scott for a fun and thought-provoking account of the weirdest album ever produced.

Danny Bednar, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Environment at Western University in Canada where he teaches about space exploration. He is also an analyst at the Canadian Space Agency and the co-author of For All Humankind: The Untold Stories of How the Moon Landing Inspired the World. All views are his own.

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A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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Danny Bednar

Danny Bednar

Your Friendly Neighborhood Space Agency Worker, Geography PhD, Part-Time Professor, and Author. Writing about Movies, Music, Comics, & Hockey.

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