Buzz in the Flesh: A Microcosm for Science in America

I had the opportunity a few months ago, largely thanks to @sociolinguista, to see Buzz Aldrin speak. It was pretty cool; even at 85, he’s still charming and sharp. Now-a-days, he’s mostly advocates for Martian exploration and colonization, and this comprised the bulk of the discussion. The session was part interview–done by Aldrin’s own son–part Q&A.

Before Buzz came out, a video explained his grand plan to reach Mars. Then, Buzz talked about optimal plans, etc. putting stations at L1, and choices for transfer orbits and hyperbolic intersects.

As much as I respect Buzz’s plans, I wonder what good they do. After all, the problem isn’t having a science plan. Planning is fun; there are entire video games where you plan and complete space missions. The problem is money and public interest. We have a public that doesn’t know or care, and as a result, there’s no money for the program.

As someone who studied physics (and has played enough KSP that it’s unhealthy), I understood what he was going on about. I don’t know that the majority of people in the audience did. There’s ways he could have helped, but didn’t bother, either by replacing jargon with a few extra words, or just taking a moment to explain some key concept briefly. A few extra words can go a long way.

Scientists have a duty, both to do honest science, but also to explain that science to others. That’s been done rather poorly over the last 50 years, and now we’ve got a significant segment of the public actively ignoring us, because no one really explained to them what’s going on in a way they could understand. It’s not that they can’t understand, it’s that we have to do a better job in helping them to do so.


The Context of the Gold Record

Voyager 1 and 2 were two robotic probes launched into the outer solar system in 1977.  Their timing was impeccable, launched in a rare window where a single vehicle could encounter all four gas giants without requiring any course corrections aside from gravity assists. To this day, Voyager 2’s pictures of Uranus and Neptune are the highest resolution available.


Attached to each probe was a gold record. They contain a variety of images and sounds of Earth, from music to rain, to “hello” in a number of languages. As a kid, when I first heard about this, I took the idea of the messages for granted; aliens could pick it up and know who we are and stuff, maybe drop in and say hello.

The deeper meaning of the records wasn’t abundantly clear until I remembered the context of the 1970’s; it’s striking how different things are now than they were then.

These days, I can pull up any song I want, any time I want. I can rip it, copy it, and aside from the opinions of a few douche-canoes at the RIAA, distribute it to whomever I want at no apparent cost except that of the electricity to run my computer.

At the time, though, music was etched into plastic–not with lasers but with needles–worn down with each precious play. Data was transmitted on physical media. The existence of that physical world was punctuated each waking moment with the impending doom of nuclear war. Carl Sagan–in large part responsible for arranging the record–comes back to the theme of nuclear war throughout his multi-part television series Cosmos, often noting the precarious position of humanity in the 20th century. Impending nuclear war comes across as quaint–at least it did when I first was dwelling on this–but it was a possible ending to his–and our–world.

Sagan and others suggested future humans may be able to pick up the gold record. Aside from being a novel object–a one of a kind artifact–it was unclear why this was meaningful. However, in the context of atomic bombs blowing the living hell out of every city on earth, it was far more obvious. The plastic records of human civilization would have melted away, perhaps further lost through strife of war, revolution, or change.

The gold record carried the idea that some how, by some means, our culture had endured. Something else–distant ancestors or life alien–could pick the sounds of us up, decipher our message, and know us–know what we heard and what we felt, to know Johnny B Goode and “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen.” It wasn’t just a message to aliens, but to the post-apocalyptic humans who would have had no way to know us, with our cities and records reduced to glass and ash. Through the gold records, in some way, even if we failed to create peace on earth and lost ourselves, we had endured in eternal memory of anyone, human or otherwise, that could have come after us.