Music from Earth (Gen Ed 1006)





How can music help us in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence?


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Alexander Rehding

In 1977 humanity sent a mixtape into outer space. The two spacecraft of NASA’s Voyager mission include a Golden Record, featuring greetings in 55 earth languages, 116 images of the planet and its inhabitants, plus examples of music from a range of cultures across the world: from Azerbaijani bagpipes to Zaire pygmy songs, from English Renaissance dances to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and from Louis Armstrong to Chuck Berry. The samplings of earthbound auditory culture are on their way into the unknown. The Voyagers left the solar system around 2014, and in about 40,000 years the sun will no longer be their nearest star.

The Golden Record raises a number of big questions. The vast temporal and spatial distances that it traverses force us to change our perspective so as to imagine the distant future and to think far beyond our usual comfort zone. In trying to make contact with the Big Other—quite literally, communicating with the alien—the Golden Record asks us to confront our very humanity and to pose questions of self-representation and communication on the broadest level.

It is ironic that in 1977 the idea of communicating with aliens was something of a crackpot theory that serious scientists rarely promoted, whereas the vast number of exoplanets that have been discovered over the last forty years has given new relevance to this idea. We now believe that there must be at least 100 billion exoplanets, so the tables have turned: now it seems statistically unlikely that there would be no other inhabited planet in the universe.

The central question we will ask in this class is bafflingly simple: What might happen if someone picked up the Golden Record at the other end? What does listening actually mean on this broadest, interplanetary level? Of course, any answer must remain speculative, but this doesn’t mean that we must throw our arms up in the air in despair. SETI, the Study of Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, has identified a number of factors that we can safely assume to be universally recognizable across planets. Chief among them is the binary system of zero and one; it is also likely that sensory perception will rely on vibration patterns in a fluid medium. These give us a basis for some informed speculation. Concrete answers will likely remain evasive, but the creative and deductive work that goes into solving these puzzles are just as important as the answers themselves.

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