We Were Here

by Natalie Kinkade

The echo of Carl Sagan’s laughter is on the Voyager Golden Record. A laugh produced for a matter of record? A utilitarian chuckle? Will the aliens hear its falseness, feel the phony forcedness of it? “Courtesy laugh,” I whisper to my mom after observing her in a small-talk interaction, eliciting her real laugh. In fact, laugh scientists have divided laughter into five distinct categories: spontaneous, simulated, stimulated, induced, and pathological. Which is the one on the Record? I think we can safely rule out pathological, but not having spent time around Sagan, not having been exposed to his various laughs at dinner parties and in front of the television and on overheard phone calls, I’m not sure how to judge the honesty and character of this laugh. But surely Sagan, both romantic and methodical, took care to record a genuine laugh for the Record. For all we know, the aliens might be empaths who can sense sincerity and spontaneity, deceit and dishonesty. The polite “ha” of a business call would not do for such creatures. So what was Sagan laughing at? To my ear it’s something between a chortle and a belly laugh. Perhaps he recorded himself listening to a comedy album on headphones: George Carlin immortalized only by association. Or perhaps he cut the laugh from a previously recorded conversation when he realized, only later, that he wanted the aliens to hear us laugh.

Babies laugh their first laughs in the first few months of life, and even deaf or blind babies know how. Other primates and apes laugh, too. Scientists believe the penchant for laughter evolved as a tool for social bonding—we are thirty times more likely to laugh in a group than by ourselves. Laughter may be the most universal, the most transcendent, the most spontaneous form of communication we have. What better to send to the aliens?

But laughter says only so much. Friendly greetings in fifty-five languages open the Record. In Mandarin Chinese: How’s everyone? We all very much wish to meet you; if you’re free please come and visit. So welcoming! Latin: Greetings to you, whoever you are; we have good will toward you and bring peace across space. Swedish: Greetings from a computer programmer in the little university town of Ithaca on the planet Earth. I had to look up these translations; I knew only three of the fifty-five greetings (and not those three). Most of it was just as foreign to me as it would be to the aliens. Or not. What do I know? Maybe the aliens communicate through sign language or telepathy or some other method beyond human imagination. The very concept of spoken greetings could be utterly incomprehensible to them. Still, Hello seems like a logical place to begin when you’re tasked with recording an autobiography of the human race in 180 minutes.

Musical selections make up the bulk of the Record: Stravinsky, Mozart, two Beethoven pieces, three Bach pieces, folk music from around the world, some blues and jazz, “Johnny B. Goode.” It’s a little heavy on Bach for my taste. I prefer the Romantics, not to mention the Beatles. The selection seems designed to impress with its sophistication and diversity, carefully curated to showcase human creativity for an alien audience with unknown tastes. Stripped of cultural context and understanding of language, what would it mean to them? It’s hard to imagine hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and failing to be enthralled by its Sturm und Drang, and it’s hard to imagine hearing “Johnny B. Goode” and failing to think, Oh, hell yeah. A study at Berkeley found that American and Chinese listeners generally ascribe the same emotions to excerpts of (mostly Western) music, but the researchers admit this concurrence may result from globalization. Listening to the non-Western music on the Record, I’m at a loss as to how to interpret it. So where does that leave the aliens?

Some of the sounds, surely, would be familiar to them: sounds like wind, rain, and surf must be universal to any planet that can sustain life. But maybe that’s narrow-minded. We haven’t even found any other life in the universe and I’m already putting constraints on it.

The Record also includes the sound of a kiss, which is a lovely idea, but a slightly repulsive sound, as far as I’m concerned. A kiss is even harder than a laugh to read over audio, but like laughs, there are so many kisses that make up a life: a booboo kiss, a blown kiss, a first kiss, a French kiss, a spin-the-bottle kiss, a kiss hello, a kiss goodnight, a New Year’s kiss, a mistletoe kiss, a stolen kiss, “You may kiss the bride,” a quick kiss on the way out the door. The kiss on the Record is a quick smack, maybe even a cheek kiss. Is it genuine, as I feel the laugh must be? And whose kiss is it, I wonder? Was that Sagan’s, too? Maybe with Ann Druyan—they fell in love with each other while compiling the Record. NASA told Sagan a kiss was allowed as long as it was heterosexual. As if the sound would betray an illicit same-sex kiss, as if the aliens would care. Ten percent of human cultures on Earth today do not kiss, and aliens might not, either—they might not even have mouths—so would those sounds mean anything to them? Would laughter and kissing sound happy, or even benign, to an alien? Can aliens hear?

In what seems to me a sort of Hail Mary hope for connection, Sagan’s team filled the last slot on the Record with a recording of Ann Druyan’s brainwaves—that’s probably not the scientific term—the electrical impulses of her mind. We can’t begin to read thoughts from recordings of a brain’s electrical impulses, but they figured, What the hell? Maybe extraterrestrials of the distant future can. Overwhelmed, perhaps, by the absurd profundity, the strange hopefulness, the cosmic crossed fingers of her task, Druyan focused her thoughts during the recording on history, philosophy, culture, and human society, on injustice and poverty and the pain of being alive—the things for which there was no space and no words to express, no way to do justice to on the Golden Record—as if these issues could be parceled into a statement from the secretary general of the United Nations (though they did also include a statement from the secretary general of the United Nations). It’s everything we flail and yearn for when we write, why we all keep making art—because no one is satisfied with the answers thus far. So the Golden Record was doomed to fail at its task from the start. But they had to turn something in. So Ann Druyan went to Bellevue Hospital and tried to ruminate on the entirety of the human experience as comprehensively as she could in the space of an hour. At the end, she thought about love: her newfound love for Carl Sagan. These brainwaves were recorded, electronically compressed into one minute, plated in gold, installed on the Voyager spacecraft, and launched into space, carrying Druyan and Sagan’s love through the galaxy. “Whenever I’m down,” Druyan told Radiolab, “I’m thinking: and still they move, thirty-five thousand miles an hour, leaving our solar system for the great open sea of interstellar space.”

It’s incredibly romantic. So romantic, you’d like to forget Sagan first undertook the yearlong project of compiling the Record with a small team of people, including his then-wife, Linda Salzman, plus his friend Timothy Ferris and Ferris’s then-wife, Druyan. The kiss, I found out, is not Sagan but Ferris kissing Druyan on the cheek. If you’re Salzman or Ferris, Druyan’s interstellar love letter probably strikes you as somewhat less romantic. But maybe more honest. They were all just reaching out, hoping to find somebody. The making of the Record produced a great accident in bringing together Sagan and Druyan. Their hope was for Voyager to produce one more great accident in bringing together aliens and humans.

Humans monopolize most of the space on the Record, betraying our typical self-centeredness, but Sagan and company did leave some room for recordings of the nonhuman inhabitants of the Earth, who after all far outnumber us: birds squawking and cooing and whistling, crickets chirping, dogs howling, chimpanzees chattering, and a whale singing. These forms of communication might even be more comprehensible to the aliens than our speech—not so mixed up with the culture, metaphor, poetry, and arbitrary twists of history and conquest that rule human grammar and vocabulary.

But there I go again, making assumptions about forms of life that are a total mystery to me. How human of me, to claim no other creature could match our sophistication and complexity. Elephants mourn their dead and paint self-portraits, and I say they have no culture? Their calls might be utilitarian dispatches, or they might be expressions of something profound and ineffable. Sure, scientists have observed animals and categorized their calls, perceived the patterns and made conclusions about their significations: they make these kinds of sounds to call their packs over, these kinds of sounds when they’re horny. Still, the nuances escape us. There must be thousands of combinations of words that humans use to call their friends, or to express sexual desire—each one additionally complicated by unquantifiable emotional subtleties. Sagan, in his sagacity, included the humpback whale song among the human greetings, rather than with the animal sounds.

More recently, another whale—a lonesome blue who swims the seas humming his mating song at 52 hertz—has caught hold of lonely hearts around the world. Blue whales typically sing at pitches between 15 and 25 hertz; he’s the only one on record with such a high-pitched voice. When his story hit the papers, it resonated with the public. They’ve made albums, paintings, and documentaries about the poor whale who has sung and sung for years and years and the other whales have never heard him. People empathized. “It’s not physically the whale,” filmmaker Joshua Zeman explained to The Washington Post. “The whale itself—honestly, if you talk to scientists, they will tell you that it’s not lonely. Other whales can probably hear it. Other whales can probably understand it. But my next question is: Why do we prescribe that emotion, and why does that emotion affect us as human beings?” Is it more anthropocentric to assume that animals do not experience emotions or to assume that they do? And anyway, even if the other whales can hear Mr. 52 Hertz, he’s still a misfit. He’s still the solitary high blue whale voice deep in the sea, and even the romantic humans whose hearts he touches do not understand him. Meanwhile, ship traffic and oil exploration interfere with the whales’ communication. It’s getting too noisy down there. All our signals are crashing into each other and getting muddled underwater, like the crescendo of a gymnasium full of children: the louder it gets, the harder it is to hear, and the more they have to raise their voices to make themselves heard over the increasing roar. We ache for the whale and for ourselves, singing our weirdo songs and never quite managing to be understood.

Sagan himself said that the whole Golden Record is, “as much as the sounds of any baleen whale, a love song cast upon the vastness of the deep.” But even more than the sounds of any baleen whale, it seems to me the Golden Record is the 52-hertz blue whale song of the human species. It took forty years after Voyager’s launch for the Record to become available for public consumption because of record-company disputes. Even releasing the Record to the residents of the planet it’s from turned out to be a challenge. The whole project is a scream into the void, a likely unanswerable call. A plea for somebody to hold our hand and tell us we are not alone in the universe.

Visiting Los Alamos in 1950, the physicist Enrico Fermi sat down to lunch with several other scientists in the place where they had so recently developed the atomic bomb. The conversation turned to extraterrestrial life, and Fermi brought up an unsettling point that has become known as Fermi’s Paradox. As Sagan would put it, here are “billions and billions” of stars in this billions-of-years-old galaxy of ours. Scientists, by 1950, believed as we do now that life arose spontaneously from the primordial soup of the basic elements of the universe that have existed since the Big Bang. It stands to reason, then, that Earth can’t be the one place that life emerged in all that time and all that space. But Fermi’s question was Well, where are they, then? If aliens have been evolving alongside us across the galaxy for billions of years, why is there no trace of them? Shouldn’t we have heard from them by now? Maybe the development of life on Earth was a total fluke, a possible but highly improbable series of coincidences that led to this freak thing called life. Maybe we really are all alone. Maybe the whole Voyager project was wishful thinking. Sheer caprice. Maybe all art is. All communication. Maybe Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. Signifying nothing. And if we bomb the Earth to bits, an LP on a twelve-foot spacecraft will be all that’s left to show for all the life in the universe.

Or maybe there is life someplace in the universe, but it isn’t intelligent or sentient. Would it make you feel better to think there could be a few amoebas oozing around on some distant planet? Voyager could sail right over them, carrying the laugh and the kiss and the love between Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan, and all those greetings and goodwill and peace would be lost on our only cousins in the whole cold universe, those single-celled plebs.

Or maybe there is intelligent life, but we missed it. A civilization rose and fell and became extinct on the other end of the Milky Way before life arrived on Earth, or at least before Voyager could get there. Or Voyager will pass close by intelligent beings when they’re developing their first tools. Or they’ll have telescopes and manage to observe Voyager, but lack the technology to retrieve it and hear our music. A foreign planet’s spacecraft, their version of Voyager, could have passed right by our solar system at any point before very recently and we’d have had no idea. Voyager measures twelve feet high. Twelve feet, in the vastness of space. If the universe were scaled down such that Earth was the size of a grape, then Alpha Proxima, the nearest star to our sun, would be twenty-four thousand miles away from the grape. Voyager would take a scanning electron microscope to spot.

In 1990, Voyager took the famous Pale Blue Dot portrait of the Earth: a speck, obscured by lens flare, suspended in a sea of blackness—and Voyager, 3.7 billion miles out, turning around to take one last glimpse at home before it faded from sight. As of 2022, Voyager was still transmitting data back to us and is now the farthest man-made object from Earth, having entered interstellar space on August 25, 2012. Within a decade, it will run out of electricity and lose the ability to communicate with us. It’s still within the gravitational influence of the sun, but should officially break through the borders of the solar system when it passes within 1.6 light-years of the star Gliese 445. That will happen about forty thousand years from now. Of course, that’s assuming it survives the intervening years, thirty thousand of which it will spend traveling through the Oort cloud, a theoretical expanse of icy comets and interstellar wind threatening to bring Voyager’s journey to an ignominious end.

So, if Voyager avoids crashing into any comets during its thirty thousand years in the Oort cloud, and if there is sentient life in the universe, and if any of it is in the Gliese 445 system, and if the Gliesians manage to detect Voyager, and if they care, and if they find a way to retrieve it, and if they understand our instructions for playing the Record, and if they can hear—then, forty thousand years in the future, a group of aliens will gather around a record player and listen to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the humpback whales and Carl Sagan’s laugh. The odds are so long. At the time of the launch, although many, like Sagan, harbored a high level of interest and belief in the existence of alien life, we had no direct evidence that any other planets even existed around other stars. Yet Sagan and Druyan spent a year curating the collection of sounds, all along knowing that there was no hope of reply. It was enough to say, We were here.

The Record, coated in gold and encased in aluminum, ought to last a billion years—five thousand times longer than Homo sapiens have existed so far. Our civilization will be long gone by then. But maybe it’s not impossible for somebody to find it. A lot can happen in a billion years.

Forty years down, forty thousand to go until the first remote chance of discovery, by our calculations, which are frankly rather specious given so many unknown factors. I say “our calculations,” as if you and I performed them, but when you look at that pale blue dot, individuality seems irrelevant. Everything humankind has ever done is contained in that speck. “Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors,” said Sagan, “so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.” The aliens aren’t going to know who did the calculations. The Record does not detail the deeds of great heroes or terrible villains. Alexander the Great and his seventy Alexandrias will be forgotten as surely as we will be. Even Bach, whose music features so prominently on the Record, isn’t identified on it by name. So I might as well give us credit: our calculations. Forty thousand to a billion years until somebody finds our message.

Sagan compared sending Voyager out into the universe to throwing a dart at the wall in a pitch-black empty Madison Square Garden, hoping to hit one of a few scattered balloons attached to the walls. “IS THERE ANYBODY ALIVE OUT THERE?” Bruce Springsteen asks at every concert. He knows the 20,789 voices of a sold-out Garden crowd will reply in ecstatic affirmative, but he asks anyway. Voyager asks the universe the same question, knowing we will never get a reply. But we ask anyway. It comes to the same thing, somehow. The beauty is in the attempt.

The pale blue dot stands indifferent to finishing the essay, the billion years versus saving the whales, the profound emptiness of space versus finding someone to love. But Sagan didn’t see it that way. The image famously inspired him to invite us “to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another, and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Sometimes the thought of Voyager going forever undiscovered in an indifferent, dead, godless universe seems incredibly bleak. But other times … the overabundance of enthusiasm for J. S. Bach, the comically stiff UN message, Ann Druyan’s inscrutable brainwaves of imperfect, unfaithful love, Carl Sagan’s enigmatic laugh, the plaintive humpback whale song—I think: but this is caring, this is living. This is god. If nowhere else, then here.

Published on November 9, 2022

First published in Harvard Review 59.