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When American musicians sell 500,000 copies of a single or an album, they are rewarded with a symbolic gold record.
NASA scientists forever redefined the meaning of that term when they sent two literal phonograph records – each made of copper and covered with pure gold – into deep space, crossing their fingers that perhaps one of those records might one day be received and played by an extraterrestrial intelligence.
The Voyager Golden Records, called “The Sounds of Earth,” were placed on board the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft, which took off on separate unmanned exploratory missions in 1977.
Voyager 1, traveling at 38,000 mph, zinged past the orbit of Pluto in 1990 and left the outer fringes of our solar system in 2004. Voyager 2 is going even faster in a different direction. In about 40,000 years, if all goes well, both probes will wind up in the general vicinity of a handful of distant stars (give or take a few light years).
Phonograph communication, of course, was already a thing of the past within 40 years of the Voyagers leaving Earth. But if another intelligent, space-faring species is able to encounter one of them – and if they are blessed with five-year-old grandchildren who can show them how to operate the technology – they will discover engraved instructions on how to construct a turntable and where to place the needle.
Exactly what kind of information would they receive?
The golden records are packed with sounds and images intended to represent life on our planet. A variety of notations indicate the size, chemistry, and mathematical relationships of what is seen and heard.
Among the 116 recorded images, there are pictures of natural wonders like the Grand Tetons in Wyoming and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, as well as architectural wonders like the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China.
Full color images also depict an elephant, a tree toad, a crocodile, and schools of fish. They show humans from a wide range of cultures eating, drinking, dancing, fishing, picking grapes, driving through rush hour traffic, and even doing gymnastics (Olympic medal winner Cathy Rigby will reach the end of her life knowing that her picture is going to be traveling through deep space for tens of thousands of years).
There are words of greeting in 55 languages, both ancient and modern. Other sounds include thunder, breaking waves, chirping birds, and singing whales – not to mention laughter, footsteps, and a wide variety of music. Selections of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Stravinsky all made the galactic cut, as well as some folk tunes, an oboe solo, and “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry.
In a 1978 skit on Saturday Night Live, Steve Martin breathlessly announced that NASA had already received a message from outer space. “It may be just four simple words, but it’s proof positive that there is intelligent life in the universe: ‘Send more Chuck Berry.’”
Who exactly decided what sounds and images would represent life on Earth?
That task was given to Carl Sagan, a Cornell University professor and America’s most highly regarded astronomer at the end of the 20th century. He and a committee worked for more than a year culling through thousands of options. Sagan himself was wildly enthusiastic about the likelihood of other intelligent beings in the cosmos. He likened the Voyager Golden Records to launching “bottles into the cosmic ocean,” and that pursuing this project “says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the records don’t include a hint of humanity’s enduring love affair with and/or search for God.
Sagan was a joyful proponent of Scientism – the notion that all of reality can (and should) be explained by natural means alone. It would have been galling for him to present human civilization to extraterrestrials as still mired in the mud of religious devotion.
But that’s who we are.
Even after the groundbreaking cosmological, quantum, and technological breakthroughs of the past century, sociologists acknowledge that the vast majority of the residents of planet Earth continue to look to something or Someone beyond themselves for hope and meaning.
Worship, study, prayer, meditation, serving, and “weeping with those who weep” are just as common everyday activities as eating and drinking.
British author and theologian C.S. Lewis, who wrote a trio of space-based novels, was often asked if he believed in the existence of extraterrestrials.
His answer was fascinating. Lewis said he wouldn’t be remotely surprised if we discovered that the universe teems with other intelligent beings created by God. That would be entirely consistent with an enterprising Creator.
He would then want to know something crucial about the worlds where those other beings lived. Which of the following three conditions would apply? Were they “unfallen” planets – places where beings endowed with free will had never disobeyed God? Were they “unredeemed” – domains where God had made no provision for the spiritual rehabilitation of his creatures? Or were they “redeemed” – worlds where God himself had taken the necessary steps to repair his relationship with those who had chosen to go their own way?
Lewis wondered aloud if it’s possible that every single world falls into the first category – unfallen planets as far as our telescopes can see.
But there would be one exception – our very own planet. Is it possible that Earth is the only place in the universe where intelligent creatures, made in God’s own image, have thumbed their noses at their Creator and said, “We’ll take it from here, thank you”?
That would mean we’re also the only world that has ever occupied the second category.
And as followers of Jesus have come to believe, we’re also the only entry in the third category – the Visited Planet, where God found it necessary to become one of his own creatures in order to rescue them.
Which means that the Earth is a far more special place than any of us has ever dared to imagine.
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