The Rarest Record in the Galaxy

You are looking at the rarest record in the whole galaxy. There are only two in existence, and you can’t find either of them on Earth. You’d have to travel about 14 billion kilometers to find one, and about 17 billion kilometers to find the other. And you’d need a space ship. But let’s back up a minute, and start on Earth.

I first learned about these gold records when I heard another record a few years ago. It’s not gold. In fact it’s hardly a record at all. It’s square and about as thin as paper. Here’s a picture of it:

It is a record, but it is a special kind of record called a flexi-disc. They were much cheaper to make than ordinary records. This one was made by National Geographic magazine, and was actually included in one of their old magazines, like a tear-out advertisement.

Here’s a snippet of some its audio:

I hope you listened, because that’s one of the coolest things ever said on a record.

Here’s some background: In 1977, NASA launched two probes on a grand tour of space to explore the giant outer planets of our solar system, like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The probes were loaded with tons of different cameras and instruments, and sent back some amazing stuff, like this time-lapse video Voyager I took of Jupiter:

Cool, right? It gets cooler.
You see, when you send a space ship that far into space, it can’t just turn around when it’s done with its mission. One of the laws of physics is: an object in motion tends to stay in motion. (Trevor helped with that.) So when all the NASA guys were planning the Voyager missions, they had a tremendous thought: what happens when the Voyagers leave our solar system? They knew they would keep travelling deeper and deeper into space, and that they could possibly keep going for a billion years!

So the astronomers thought: now what would happen if some aliens, just going about their business in their interstellar cruisers, happened to come across this floating hunk of metal? If they did, it could be so long from now, that all of humanity might not be around anymore. By that time, humanity might be older than the dinosaurs.

Now it’s a long shot that aliens might find either the Voyager 1 or Voyager 2. We don’t even know if anyone else is out there! But there could be. And if they are, shouldn’t we say “hi” and introduce ourselves?

The late astronomer Carl Sagan headed a group of scientists, and their job was to come up with our message and greeting to the aliens. Now Carl Sagan was a pretty deep thinker. His whole life, he was obsessed with the question: are we alone in the universe? And one thing I’ve learned is this: the deeper the question is, the more questions it leads to. And one of those questions was this: if we ever do receive an alien message from outer space, how will we translate it?

Carl Sagan was fascinated with whale songs and dolphin communication. He studied the research of a scientist named John Lilly (you might remember him from the book about me, Sound Bender, where he goes by the name of Jay Lylo.) John Lilly spent his life trying to decode dolphin language, and Sagan was fascinated with his research. Sagan thought that we might already have intelligent aliens living on Earth: Cetaceans — those are animals like whales and dolphins. And Sagan thought that the first step to figuring out a way to decode an alien message was to see if we could decode the sounds that whales and dolphins make. After all, these animals live in a world completely different than our dry land, and if they had language, it was probably completely different in every way from our own.

In the end, Carl Sagan and his team decided to put a gold record in each of the Voyager probes, both containing sounds and images from Earth. Here’s the flip side of it:

It’s got lots of diagrams, and those were ways of trying to tell the aliens where the probe came from.

Now I’m not sure what kind of turntable the aliens would have to have to listen to the record, but along with lots of pictures, it included lots greetings in different languages, music from around the world, and the songs of humpback whales. Carl Sagan believed that, if the humpback whales were actually talking and communicating, that the aliens would be able to translate their message, and hear what was on their minds.

And since the Voyagers won’t reach the next star system for 40,000 years, those are sounds that span time.

And had I not found that flimsy little record in the basement of a friend’s building while he was waiting for his laundry to dry, I’d have never known about any of this.


Coming up next, we explore the theremin, the first electronic instrument ever made. And the first instrument you don’t even have to touch to play…

And here are some more topics I’ll post about soon:
— Radioactive records from the 1940s.
— How to make your own turntable out of cardboard.
— Records made on x-rays.