Over the weekend, it was announced that the Voyager 2 probe has left the boundaries of our solar system: becoming just the second human-made object to do so (after its sister probe, the Voyager 1). These probes were launched in 1977, an effort to learn more about the outer solar system and in particular the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Such were the probes successes; their mission was extended in the 1980’s to explore the very boundaries of our solar system.
But let’s jump back quickly… why is this important, and what on earth (sic) does this have to do with whales? On the face of it, marine mammal science and interstellar science tend to have very little in common. We will get back to whales later, but there are a few things strike me as being particularly significant about this event.
As technology advances, humanity will increasingly look to the stars. In 1969 the first man set foot on the moon. In 2000 the International Science Station (ISS) housed its first permanent residents. Today, private organisations like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are bringing us closer to space than ever before. Earlier on this year, Goldman Sachs predicted that the world’s first trillionaire is going to make their fortune in space. Unlike most things (such as the natural resources on this planet) space is effectively limitless. The Voyager probes represent the greatest extent of human exploration of this limitless frontier, and always will. Couple with this, the fact that they have been feeding us information about our solar system for 40 years…
But these probes did not only include scientific instrumentation. They also each contained a ‘Golden Record’ which included on it sounds and images of from humanity and planet earth. The idea being, that if these probes are ever discovered by extra-terrestrials, these beings would be able to learn about us.
What an incredible responsibility this was, to decide what to put on these Golden Records. With today’s technology one could store colossal amounts of information on a computer drive the size of a thumb. In the 1970’s, they had to be incredibly careful about what to include, and indeed what not to include. They had to determine what humanities ‘greatest hits’ were: to give extra-terrestrials a snapshot of humanity and life on earth. There was also the added responsibility that these probes might be the longest lived objects of any object created by humanity.
So, what was included on the Golden Records?
Images of a nude man and woman, an attempt to explain reproduction. An image of the structure of DNA. Olympic sprinters. The Taj Mahal (chosen above other great pieces of architecture because it was built in honour of a woman, and not a god). Sounds were also included on the records. ‘Johnny B. Goode’, by Chuck Berry, a Georgian chorus, and the sound of a human kiss all made the cut. One section of the Golden Record contains 60 greetings in different human languages, from Indonesian to Sumerian, Telugu to Hebrew.
Amongst these greetings, there is one which stands out, which differs from the rest. Rather than constituting a spoken greeting, this one is in song-form. It was sung, and recorded, off the coast of Bermuda during the winter of 1970. It was a beautiful and haunting song, and whilst the reasons why it was sung are still in 2018 not entirely understood, it was recorded by none other than Ocean Alliance Founder and President Dr. Roger Payne. In case my not-so-subtle hints have been misinterpreted, this greeting from earth was sung by a humpback whale. Further in in the record other animal sounds are included. The whale song is the only non-human sound included in the list of greetings from earth.
This inclusion seems to me quite lovely. That the people who sent these probes into the cosmos were not so arrogant as to believe that all an extra-terrestrial life form would be interested in was humanity. During this bold and aggressive age, at the height of the cold war when the United States and Soviet Union fought a ferocious technological and economic conflict. And a deep, slow, rhythmic whale song is chosen as a greeting from Planet Earth to the cosmos. To me, this addition shows so much about humanity. It is recognition of the fact that these sounds are a part of this planet, just as we are. It shows humility in the face of nature, from some of the brightest (human) minds on the planet. It shows that, intrinsically, we do care about the planet, the organisms that make it home. On a more personal level, it also tells me that if humanity can send these objects beyond our solar system, then humanity certainly can do more to protect life back here on this planet earth.
So we come back to why a whale biologist is talking about the Voyager probes. The easy answer is, well, because there are whale songs embedded on the probes, songs which my boss recorded.
But perhaps there are more links between space and whales. One would be forgiven for drawing comparative allegories between whale song and humanities exploration of space. Full of mystery, haunting and prehistoric, something which, no matter how much we learn about it, always manages to be just beyond the cusp of our understanding.
Of course, there are also key differences. Space is effectively limitless. There will always be more space to discover. But one day humans might wake up a planet which has no more whales. And space is beyond our control. Our ability to control what happens to life on earth is not.