The Golden Discs

In the late Summer of 1977, Voyager I and II left planet Earth to begin their journey into interstellar space. On board were a pair of golden records that were jammed full of music, pictures, sounds and greetings from this planet of ours. Carl Sagan headed up the team responsible for compiling this brief snapshot of life on Earth. Yet, how on earth do you reduce humankind to a pair of golden discs? There was much deliberating over the choice of music and the Beatles lost their place because of copyright issues. However, Bach, Beethoven made the cut alongside Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry. Outrageously, Mozart was not originally going to be included because Carl Sagan thought that this would be too lightweight for the palettes of highly cultured aliens. Eventually, an extract from The Magic Flute was included because it included the highest note sung in traditional opera thus demonstrating the range of human vocal cords. Of course, this is all wonderfully silly but, at the same, time fascinating. 

On one level, this could be seen as nothing more than a distraction from the serious business of ‘doing science’. It is almost comical to imagine NASA agonising over whether or not to include an Elvis number or to settle for Melancholy Blues performed by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven.  One touching inclusion was a performance directed by the brilliant period performance specialist David Munrow who tragically took his own life at the age of just thirty four, less than a year prior to the launch. 

An image from one of the Golden Discs 

The inclusion of a recording by Munrow, perhaps gives us a clue to why these golden discs assumed such importance in the public imagination. Even if interstellar space is crowded with aliens, the chances of the probes ever being discovered is infinitesimally small. The utter vastness of space and the fact that the nuclear reactors will shut off completely in about 2030 means that in astronomical terms, they have only really popped down the road for a pint of milk.  In the 43 years and 10 days since its launch, Voyager 1 has only travelled 13 billion miles. Travelling at the speed of light, that distance could be covered in under 24 hours. Considering the nearest star is 4.3 light-years away you can see the problem. Space is just too big for us to randomly bump into some aliens. 

So why include the discs? Perhaps because it touches something deep within ourselves. We long to make connections with others and there are times when science needs to give way to that profoundly deep-rooted sentiment that inspires us to dream of life, or some form of existence,  beyond this planet of ours. The thought that we constitute little more than a speck or a mote of dust in some far flung corner of the Milky Way Galaxy does not appeal to that extraordinary impulse within us that wants to make connections and establish friendships. We struggle with social distancing because it is intrinsically contrary to who or what we are.  

Any alien fortunate enough to have stumbled upon the discs will hear greetings in Aramaic, Armenian alongside Bengali and Burmese. They can listen to this whilst exploring the 115 images that attempt to explain every aspect of our existence from reproduction to traffic jams and from flight to the beauty of the natural world. It is touching, naive and a project imbued with the faith, hope and dreams of a world that does not wish to be solitary. The inclusion of the golden records on the Voyager probes has always touched me because it is so incredibly human to dare to believe that we will one day be able to transcend our earthly isolation. 

Thinking about those golden discs the other day, I wondered how one might reasonably reduce this past year at Rossall to a set number of images or sounds. Of course, this would not be possible. Sure, in this digital age of ours, we could probably condense more information into our alien discs than was possible in 1977 but, ultimately, the motivating spirit of this community is beyond distillation and beyond description. In the aftermath of lockdown, I think it is that togetherness, that sense of belonging that our children value most. Perhaps that it is, in part, why it has been such an excellent start to term but there is something more than this, and I cannot put it into words, particularly special about this time. 

Back here on planet Earth, it has been a week during which sporting fixtures, music, and a whole host of other activities have got underway. School is as busy as ever and we are learning that there is so much that we can accomplish, even during these times. It is important to remain cautious but our ongoing testing contract with Oncologica provides us with an additional sense of confidence for it means that we have the ability to test staff or pupils at any given point in time. Masks and track and trace devices are worn but, and here is the strangest thing, their ubiquity has served to render them almost invisible. 

All that remains is for me to thank you for your continued support and whilst we do not have time to devote to communicating with aliens (!), we dare to dream of a time beyond COVID. However, in the meantime, we are doing everything we can to ensure that all of our children continue to flourish during these times. I am so proud of this community and all that we are accomplishing. Have a wonderful weekend when the time comes.