Valentine’s Day is Sunday! Instead of trying to decide what to get your significant other, spouse, or family member, suppress your hunter-gatherer instincts for a moment and think about the love you have for that person. Thousands of symphonies, ballads, sonnets, plays, films and Jem songs have been written about the strength of a bond between two people. But one couple at a unique time and place found themselves with the opportunity to immortalize what they had not just with their friends and family – but with the entire Universe.
The love of one human couple only lasts for the tiniest instant of cosmic time. Is it possible to share that strong emotion with an alien civilization light years away from earth, millions of years in the future? For Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, who fell in love during the preparations for the Voyager mission into the solar system and beyond, the sky was no longer even close to the limit.
NPR’s Morning Edition featured a Radiolab short today that featured what is truly a love story for the ages between the famous astronomer and his then colleague Ann Druyan, as they worked on the Voyager Interstellar Record record (which I’ve written about before). By the way, if you’re not subscribing to the Radiolab podcast, you’re just wasting your tympanic membranes.
You can listen to the story by hitting the play button below:
Jad Abumrad, Soren Wheeler and Robert Crowlwich set up the “first date” where Sagan and Druyan were working closely on the record together:
Toward the end of the summer of ’77, NASA launched two spacecraft as part of the Voyager Interstellar Mission. On board each craft was a golden record that included, among other things, the sound of a kiss, a mother’s first words to her newborn child, music from all over the world, and greetings in 59 different languages. The spacecraft were designed to take close-up pictures of Jupiter and Saturn, then continue into the great expanse of space beyond our solar system. The records on board were meant to survive for a billion years, in the hope that some day, against enormous odds, they might cross paths with an alien civilization.
Listen and watch a sample of the record’s content:
But their blossoming earthbound romance was just too powerful to remain on Earth:
For Druyan, though, the summer of 1977 and the Voyager project carry a deeply personal meaning, too. It was during the Voyager project that she and Sagan fell in love.
After searching endlessly for a piece of Chinese music to put on the record, Druyan had finally found a 2,500-year-old song called “Flowing Stream.” In her excitement, she called Sagan and left a message at his hotel. At that point, Druyan and Sagan had been professional acquaintances and friends, but nothing more. But an hour later, when Sagan called back, something happened. By the end of that call, Druyan and Sagan were engaged to be married.
“We both hung up the phone, and I just screamed out loud,” says Druyan, “It was this great eureka moment. It was like a scientific discovery.” The first of the Voyager project’s two spacecraft launched on Aug. 20, 1977. Druyan and Sagan announced their engagement two days later. They married in 1981, and were together until Sagan’s death in December 1996.
But the evidence of their love has taken on a life of its own. Not long after that serendipitous phone call, Druyan had an idea for the record: They could measure the electrical impulses of a human brain and nervous system, turn it into sound, and put it on the record. Then maybe, 1,000 million years from now, some alien civilization might be able to turn that data back into thoughts. So, just a few days after she and Sagan declared their love for each other, Druyan went to Bellevue Hospital in New York City and meditated while the sounds of her brain and body were recorded. According to Druyan, part of what she was thinking during that meditation was about “the wonder of love, of being in love.”
Right now, those biometric signals of love are frozen in the deep cold of space, hurdling toward the multitudes of suns in our galaxy that possibly teem with civilizations. Perhaps someday an alien civilization will stumble upon Voyager, and try to decode the signals on the record in order to understand who sent it. If they’re successful, Ann Druyan’s recorded love would be the most important relic of a then long extinct species.
But as long as we were sending important things from the 70s into the cosmos, there’s still time to launch this: