The Tower of Babel is one of the more well-known stories in the Hebrew Bible. For those unfamiliar, the entire biblical account of Babel is found in Genesis 11:1-9. In the story, humanity, united in a single language and purpose, elects to make a name for themselves in the heavens by building a tower out of wood-fired brick and bitumen pitch. Concerned by both humanity’s decision to build the tower and the unity of purpose which would allow them to accomplish whatever they devised, God disrupts humanity’s plan by diversifying their languages, scattering humanity throughout the earth. This is where the story ends, with cursed humanity divided along linguistic barriers, prevented from making a name for itself among the heavens. That is, of course, until 10 years ago today.
Laying the Foundations
In the spring of 1965, graduate student and part-time employee of the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, Gary Flandro made a startling discovery leading to an audacious prospect. Flandro realized that the solar system’s four gas giants – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune – were moving into a rare orbital alignment occurring once every 176 years. Flandro suggested this alignment provided an opportunity for a spacecraft to conduct a series of flybys of these outer planets, using the gravity of one planet to slingshot itself toward the next at speeds not possible without such gravitational assistance. As this opportunity would not come again for over a century and a half, it was decided that 2 spacecraft – Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 – would be launched on a ‘Grand Tour of the Solar System,’ with the specific mission of collecting data and images of the mysterious gas giants.
However, given the nature of gravitational assist, it soon became apparent that once the Voyagers completed their Grand Tour, they would venture out into the cosmos with no hope of returning to Earth. As Jim Bell writes in The Interstellar Age,
“When the trajectories for Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were chosen early in the history of the project, their ultimate long-term fates were sealed: both spacecraft would be traveling so fast because of their gravitational slingshots past the giant planets that they would achieve escape velocity from the solar system. That is, they would no longer be in orbit around the sun, but instead would be on one-way trips to interstellar space, no longer bound to their parent star like the rest of us (72).”
Knowing the Voyagers were destined for interstellar space presented an enticing possibility. If intelligent life exists elsewhere in the Milky Way Galaxy or, indeed, the universe, the Voyager spacecraft could carry out a secondary mission of delivering a message from humanity to the stars. As Bell explains,
“The Voyagers would be emissaries – human artifacts, time capsules of a sort, technological snapshots of what our species and our civilization was capable of doing during the time when the spacecraft were built and launched. The idea of including a message in those bottles cast into the cosmic sea seemed appropriate (72).”
So, in early 1977, a team was assembled under the leadership of astronomer and popular scientist Carl Sagan with the purpose of composing an interstellar message to be affixed to both Voyager crafts. The result was what is referred to as the Voyager Golden Record, a copper phonograph disk embedded with pictures and sounds of Earth and its inhabitants, musical selections from various cultures and times, and recorded greetings in 55 languages representing 87% of the world’s population at that time. Made of metal, the record is estimated to last at least a billion years in space, guaranteeing its survival long after Earth is no more. As Sagan writes in Murmurs of Earth,
“Billions of years from now our sun, then a distended red giant star, will have reduced Earth to a charred cinder. But the Voyager record will still be largely intact, in some other remote region of the milky way galaxy, preserving a murmur of an ancient civilization that once flourished – perhaps before moving on to greater deeds and other worlds – on the distant planet Earth (42).”
Though the Voyager crafts launched in late August (Voyager 2) and early September (Voyager 1) 1977, it would take them over a decade to finish their Grand Tour of the Solar System, with Voyager 2 completing its flyby of Neptune in 1989. From there, two decades would pass before either probe reached the heliopause or interstellar medium, the boundary of the Sun’s magnetic field and the true edge of our solar system. Finally, on August 25, 2012, Voyager 1 breached the interstellar medium becoming the first man-made object to reach the space between stars, its final mission to carry a message from humanity to whatever intelligence may eventually cross Voyager’s path. It is here that the mission inaugurated at Babel is, at last, declared a success.
Voyager and Babel
Despite their obvious differences, the Tower of Babel and the Voyager spacecrafts share some startling similarities. In the Voyager spacecraft, thousands of years of technological advancement have replaced Babel’s brick and mortar with silicon and aluminum, yet the impetus behind the construction of Babel remains: humanity’s desire to make itself known in the heavens. As cosmologist Lawrence Krauss comments in The Farthest, a documentary about the Voyager Project,
“Maybe someday another being might find Voyager and at least know of our existence. It’s highly unlikely, but it’s not impossible. And that small possibility surely gives us hope.”
Indeed, sending Voyager out into the vastness of the cosmos has confronted humanity with the ultimate futility of attempting to make a name for itself among the stars. Given the cosmic scale of outer space, Voyager is unlikely to encounter another star system for another 40,000-60,000 years, let alone an intelligent species capable of capturing the spacecraft. Nevertheless, this has not prevented humanity from dreaming that somewhere in the universe a civilization will eventually stumble upon the Golden Record and marvel at our magnanimous message. As Sagan writes in Murmurs of Earth,
“Some 60,000 years from now one or two tiny hurtling messengers from the strange and distant planet Earth may penetrate into the planetary system of [the star] AC + 79 3888… Perhaps in 60,000 years intelligence and technical civilizations will have only recently emerged on a planet of this system. The inhabitants will of course be deeply interested in the Sun, their nearest star, and in its retinue of planets. What an astonishing finding the Voyager record, this gift from the skies, would represent! They would wonder about us… they would recognize the tentativeness of our society, its tenuous acquaintance with technology and wisdom together…. For all the possible vagaries of the message, they could be sure that we were a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos (236).”
The hope of humanity making a name for itself in the heavens rests on the unlikely outcome that intelligent life will find Voyager and care enough to investigate further. It is here that God’s displeasure with humanity’s decision to build Babel takes on an element of sense. It could be that God did not want humanity to build a tower to the sky simply because he knew the scale of the universe and the ultimate futility of such an endeavor. However high humanity builds its towers, however far we send our spacecrafts, the cosmic scale does not favor humanity being known by other intelligent life in the cosmos. It could therefore be that in humanity’s decision to build the tower God recognized the arrogance of human self-aggrandizement to want to make a name for ourselves in the vastness of space, and the foolishness to devote time and resources that could have been better utilized elsewhere. In this God may have seen that humanity was too focused on memorializing human achievement rather than in addressing its faults. This would bear similarity to the intent behind the Golden Record, as Jim Bell writes,
“Carl Sagan decided to leave out some topics that represent the weakest side of human nature – topics like famine, disease, injustice, and war. While the dark side of humanity cannot be denied, it is not the part of us that the Golden Record team wanted to send out into the stars. If the messages aboard the Voyagers ended up being the last surviving artifacts of our world, they would signify the brighter side of human nature (82).”
Indeed, the Golden Record is curated as pristinely as possible, with no insights offered into the negative aspects of humanity. In Sagan’s own words in Murmurs Of Earth,
“Is it a mistake to put our best face to the cosmos? We tried to send our best music. Why not a hopeful rather than a despairing view of humanity and its possible future (40)?”
Perhaps the sin of Babel was that humanity was more interested in making itself appear worthy of memorialization than in actually addressing its societal needs. The resources devoted to building the Tower of Babel and the impossible task of making a name for humanity in the heavens were likely better allocated toward helping the poor and the marginalized in that society, which no doubt compounded God’s displeasure with the project. Whatever the reason, God decided to prevent the completion of Babel by cursing humanity with diversified language and scattering them throughout the Earth. Yet where Babel is a story of human failure, Voyager and its Golden Record serves as a story of human redemption.
Reversing the Curse
Embedded within the grooves of the Voyager phonograph record are greetings in 55 languages representing the vast majority of the Earth’s human population, as well as approximately 90 minutes of music from various human cultures. Linda Salzman Sagan, who along with then-husband Carl recorded the verbal messages, writes in Murmers of Earth,
“The greetings are an aural Gestalt, in which each culture is contributing voice in the choir. After all, by sending a spaceship out of our solar system, we are making an effort to de-provincialize, to rise above our nationalistic interests (132).”
Likewise, Timothy Ferris – who produced the musical portion of the Golden Record – provides insight into the intentionality and thoughtfulness that went into selecting the music.
“We wanted to send music of a quality compatible with the elegance of such a heritage, and with enough variety to hint at something of the diversity of Earth’s peoples. In the service of this ambition, we established two criteria. First, contributions from a wide range of cultures should be included, not just music familiar to the society that launched the spacecraft. Second, nothing should be included out of merely dutiful concerns; every selection should touch the heart as well as the mind (162).”
The result is a collection of greetings and musical compositions that highlights the beauty of human diversity. Within those record grooves the curse of Babel is effectively reversed, as what once was mired in the ugliness of human separation is now redeemed in the beautiful diversity of humanity reunited. Had humanity never broken off into different cultures and people groups, our society would have remained blandly homogenous. We likely would have developed one language, and our artistic expression would reflect a lack of cultural diversity. The diversification of culture and language analogized in the story of Babel should therefore be seen not as a divine curse but as God’s gift to humanity, as it is through this separation that humanity is able to develop into a species of vibrant polyphony. If the Voyager spacecrafts represent the completion of the tower of Babel, the Golden Record is most certainly the capstone, for in those two copper disks one sees the providence of God to work even apparent curses for the benefit of mankind, bringing about a greater beauty through a species represented by many tribes and tongues. This is the ultimate legacy of Voyager and her Golden Record: not its reception in the stars, but what it symbolizes in uniting a varied and diversified humanity once separated by language and culture, and its ability to point to a God who habitually redeems curses.
Carl Sagan, et. al., Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, Ballantine Books, 1978.
Jim Bell, The Interstellar Age: The Story of the Nasa Men and Women Who Flew the Forty-Year Voyager Mission, Dutton 2016.
The Farthest: Voyager in Space, PBS, 2017.
All images NASA/JPL.