Hidden on the golden records of Voyager lie the ultimate love notes

The golden records from the Voyager missions became famous as humanity’s attempt to explain ourselves to aliens who might find them. They were not only our introduction to the universe, but also a kind of love letter to the earth, a reminder to humanity of what is precious about ourselves and our home. So it’s fitting that, tucked away among the more familiar sounds, is a testament to the relationship between the records’ two leading makers.

Space is so vast that the chances of the Voyager missions ever being found by aliens are slim, no matter how long they last. The spacecraft’s power supply is already running low. By the time they get close to another galaxy, there will be radio bursts that can detect them, so the question of whether aliens would be able to operate a phonograph is largely unanswered.

Everyone involved in the project knew this. The message was intended primarily for humanity, to encourage us to see each of us as part of a common species, rather than members of sometimes warring nations, and to remind us what we love about the Earth. But eventually space was found for something much more personal: the brain waves of one creator thinking about another.

Officially known as the Murmurs from Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Message Projectthe Golden Records were an initiative of Carl Sagan, an advancement on the more basic Pioneer plaque that he championed.

“The spacecraft will only be encountered and the record played if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space,” Sagan said. “But the launch of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

Ann Druyan was hired as creative director, tasked with finding the visuals and music to include, and trying to make at least some of it meaningful to minds very different from our own. While Druyan was cataloging the possibilities, decisions about the contents of the plates were made by a committee chaired by Sagan.

Druyan worked closely with the committee members, including Frank Drake, but especially with Sagan, and found herself falling in love with him.

Between the sounds of working machines, wind and rain, the greetings of various animals and the music of both people and whales, the record contains an hour of recordings of Druyan’s brain waves, reduced to a minute. The ability to track brain waves and convert them into sound was a new technology at the time, and Druyan and Sagan wondered if they could one day come back to life to reveal her thoughts.

Druyan has said that her thoughts were wide-ranging during the time covered, on the theme of the things aliens would like to understand about ourselves.

This included the history and challenges of human civilizations, but also what it was like to fall in love. Druyan told Radiolab that her brainwaves were recorded just two days after she and Sagan declared their love for each other. Consequently, the thoughts on love were more than theoretical, and specifically about Sagan himself.

Sagan and Druyan married and were together until his death. Their collaboration included the documentary series Cosmos, still considered a milestone in science communication. Druyan also contributed to Sagan’s book Light blue dotincluding his famous reflections on Voyager 1’s photograph of Earth, in which he returns to the theme of our common humanity and our dependence on the ‘only home we have ever known’.

Interstellar space is vast and lonely, but also safe compared to the proximity of stars. The Voyagers’ instruments will soon fail, but the craft’s structure and the data on board are expected to last a billion years, regardless. Whatever happens to humanity and the Earth during that time, the record, including Ann’s thoughts about Carl, will live on.

The full sounds of the gold record can now be found online, and the records have been reissued for those who prefer the original.

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