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Voyager 1, science and what it means to be human

Part of the Golden Record on Voyager 1 - space exploration.

Part of the Golden Record on Voyager 1 – space exploration.

Dear readers, I’m so very sorry that nothing has happened on this site for two whole weeks. I was unwell for a week and since then I’ve been struggling to get back into the swing of things. Motivation to write posts for this site has been particularly hard to find.

I’ve found myself asking, why did I start this website? What did I hope to achieve? Why do I think it’s necessary that everyone should find a personal way to connect with science? How important are my little pieces of writing compared to the horrific, ceaseless ticker tape of news items?

A few days ago, while trying to come up with answers to these questions, I came across the photos being carried by Voyager 1. Scientists recently confirmed that this probe has entered interstellar space and is now moving through a part of the universe not influenced by our sun, the furthest a probe has ever been.

Voyager 1 carries one copy (the other is on Voyager 2) of the Golden Record: a message meant for any intelligent life form that happens across it. The message is a way to explain who we are, where and how we live. It contains photographs, recorded sounds from Earth, music and greetings in 55 languages.

Part of the Golden Record on Voyager 1 - the composition of Earth's atmosphere (as it was in the 1970s, at least).

Part of the Golden Record on Voyager 1 – the composition of Earth’s atmosphere (as it was in the 1970s, at least).

The contents of this message are a record of what we know, what we have made and what we can do (as of the 1970s, anyway, when the probes were launched). NASA describes the message this way:

“Pioneers 10 and 11, which preceded Voyager, both carried small metal plaques identifying their time and place of origin for the benefit of any other spacefarers that might find them in the distant future. With this example before them, NASA placed a more ambitious message aboard Voyager 1 and 2 – a kind of time capsule, intended to communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials. The Voyager message is carried by a phonograph record – a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth.”

Looking through these images, it struck me that science is a big part of how we self-identify as a species.

If I were to imagine something out there among the stars describing us – humans – to another extraterrestrial something, I might use a description like this:

Image from the Golden Record on Voyager 1 - the structure of DNA.

Image from the Golden Record on Voyager 1 – the structure of DNA.

They are self-aware carbon-based organisms, capable of composing music and flying into space, of creating works of art and peering inside their own DNA, of constructing awe-inspiring sacred places of worship and terrifying acts of self-destruction.

For me, as is often said by others, science is a lens – a way to view and interpret the world by understanding how the various pieces work by themselves and in concert. One technique for making sense of apparent chaos is to break it down into manageable pieces controlled by predictable chemical, biological and physical processes.

Science is certainly one mode of expression for what it means to be human – our curiosity, our desire for knowledge, our quest to understand our place in the universe.

But science is so much more than simply a way to see the world.

It is a welcome reminder that some aspects of our humanity do learn and grow and move forward positively – our abilities to heal ourselves, to create and construct, to connect – when other aspects of humanity (greed, pride, a lust for power, ignorance and intolerance) seem doomed to permanence.

Part of the Golden Record on Voyager 1 - music.

Part of the Golden Record on Voyager 1 – music.

It has taught me how to think critically and rationally, how to question assumptions and seek evidence, how to move logically from one truth to another, how to analyse information with as little personal bias as I can muster. Far from being limited to academic research, these skills spill over into the rest of my life and help me confront bullshit (in my own head and outside it) on a daily basis.

It is a comforting reminder that the universe contains more amazing and wondrous things than I could ever understand or even count, things like supernovas, orchids that look like laughing bees, electromagnetic radiation, blue-footed boobies (the birds, I mean), cell division, fractals, clouds that look like ripples on the ocean, comets, the human brain. The wonder that science can show me outnumbers all the human activity that is too terrible to comprehend.

In all these and still other ways, science is not so dissimilar to the arts. Endowed with limited artistic and musical talents, science happens to be the main forum that I’ve chosen for exploration.

Part of the Golden Record on Voyager 1 - the Taj Mahal.

Part of the Golden Record on Voyager 1 – the Taj Mahal.

When I asked myself all those questions I posed up front, my only answer was a half-answer: that science helps me to make sense of my life. But maybe that’s also true for other people. Maybe that’s true for you, and that’s why you’re reading this now. Maybe science isn’t the first place you turn, but you’re curious as to what it can offer you. 

Maybe I can connect to other human beings through a shared way to feel human. That seems as good a reason as any for continuing to write.

It’s been 9 months since I started writing for this site in earnest – an entire gestation. I could have birthed another human (or a PhD thesis) by now. Instead, I’m still figuring out how to find my voice and – more importantly – how to speak so that you want to listen.

Thank you for coming with me this far. Let’s keep flying and see where we end up.

Part of the Golden Record on Voyager 1 - cell division.

Part of the Golden Record on Voyager 1 – cell division.

Yours in the pursuit of spaceships,


I realise that it’s been a while since I’ve written a post about climate science. Those highly technical posts were becoming quite a lot of work, so I’m taking a short hiatus from them. I hope to return to regular climate science posts soon. 

voyager statement


2 thoughts on “Voyager 1, science and what it means to be human

  1. How lyrical this post. How true. And a pleasure to read.

    Posted by Anne Carey | September 18, 2013, 8:46 pm

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