Monday, May 30, 2005

Voyager Has Left The Solar System

It's an amazing achievement. Voyager, a man-made object, has traveled more than eight billion miles, at tens of thousands of miles per hour, is more than twice as far from the Sun as Pluto is, and is entering interstellar space. Nothing solid has ever left Earth and gone that far. Hurray for science!!

The irony is that, while I can't get a decent cellphone signal during most of my commute on Highway 40, we're still getting radio signals full of scientific data from the Voyager 1 as it travels these unseen distances.

But Voyager isn't just our window to the far reaches of outer space. It's also our calling card to any aliens who might exist in that abyss. In the event Voyager 1 (and its sister craft Voyager 2) ever run into someone else's neighborhood, they carry a special recorded message from Earth.

The problem I foresee is that the aliens who find the message may not be able to understand it. Not just because it's unlikely they'll speak our language -- there are greetings in 55 different Earth languages, along with recordings of Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, and others, plus nature sounds (in case the aliens live a stressful existence and need a New Age relaxation moment).

No, the problem is that the technology is so outdated.

Voyager was launched in 1977, when our best recording method was the phonograph record. Forget about aliens understanding that. Most Earth children under 21 have never played a vinyl record. Except for club DJs, who uses that technology anymore?

The scientists who planned the Voyager project included equipment and instructions on how to play the record. But what if these aliens are like every guy on Earth? They'll never read the instructions! And if they do, well, you know how impossible it is to make anything work based on instructions written in a foreign language. Remember that VCR you once tried to hook up to the cable input behind your TV with a user's guide written in Japanese? How'd that work out?

We'll just have to hope that the alien who opens up Voyager is like Jeff Bridges in "Starman." Not only did he comprehend the "drop by if you're in the solar system" invitation, he also loved dutch apple pie. It's terrific.