Cultural Astronomy Series: The Cosmic Mirror

As NASA two Voyager spacecraft travel out into deep space, they carry a small American flag and a Golden Record packed with pictures and sounds.
NASA ID: PIA17035 (public domain)

This essay is part of our on-going series on Cultural Astronomy, which will address cultural and historical themes in astronomy with the hope of developing open and informed discussion on the complex, historically-rooted challenges facing our community.

What does SETI1 have to do with issues of culture, equity, and justice?

We open our Cultural Astronomy blog series with this question, not only because conversations on SETI have become recently prevalent at the Center, but also because SETI is easily the most introspective sub-discipline within astronomy. The assumptions we make about other civilizations, messages we send to aliens, and tools we use to do so reveal much about the inequities of our world.

SETI is often promoted as an internationalist science, with the ideal of uniting all of humanity by situating it within a cosmic community. SETI scientists have commonly expressed how they believe in their field’s potential to bring about global unity. In one radical example, SETI pioneer Frank Drake once suggested the construction of a radio telescope that spanned the Israeli-Egyptian border, an idea proposed at an International SETI conference in 1971. The idea behind this theoretical project was so there could be a “search for extraterrestrial intelligence while promoting peace in the Middle East”. 2 Such an optimistic outlook is commonly reflected in SETI discourse, which often promotes the idea that reflection on extraterrestrial civilizations prompts mindful consideration of our own world.

SETI scientists sometimes refer to this phenomenon as the Cosmic Mirror. Jill Tarter, a prominent SETI scientist and advocate, once defined the Cosmic Mirror as 

 “…the mirror in which all humans can see themselves as the same, when compared to the extraterrestrial ‘other’. It’s the mirror that allows us to alter our daily perspectives and see ourselves in a more cosmic setting. It is the mirror that reminds us of our common origins in stardust”. 3

In other words, Tarter argued the act of considering contact and communication with extraterrestrial intelligence inevitably leads to contemplation on our own position in the universe, helping us reflect on our world and ourselves. The Cosmic Mirror is best seen in “METI”, messaging extraterrestrial intelligence, a term which refers to the few times in history human beings have crafted messages attached to spacecraft, or beamed via radio telescope into the cosmos. This blog will examine one famous METI attempt, the Voyager Golden Record, to highlight how astronomers were forced to confront inequality on Earth in their attempts to equitably represent our planet.

In 1972, NASA had a golden opportunity to launch two spacecraft, named Voyager 1 and 2, to explore the outer solar system, which would include visits to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The opportunity was golden because the precise locations of the planets—a rare alignment which only occurs every 175 years—allowed the engineers to use gravitational slingshots to efficiently accelerate the probes, turning a potentially 30 year journey to Neptune into one that was just 12 years. Several months before the launch, astrophysicist Carl Sagan was approached by NASA with the opportunity to attach a METI design to the probes. He gathered a small team to design the message, which included himself, Frank Drake, writer Ann Druyan, artist Jon Lomberg, and his spouse Linda Salzman-Sagan. The final product would be a set of records, coated in gold to protect them from debris and radiation on their journey through the interplanetary medium. Limited in content-space, the record would only be able to include about 115 images and a short suite of audio recordings including music, spoken greetings, and natural sounds of Earth. 

Image of Record Cover (Sept. 1977)
Source: NASA/JPL (public domain)

Carl Sagan credited his inspiration in designing the Voyager Golden Record back to a childhood visit to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Walking among the scientific marvels of the “World of Tomorrow” and the displays from civilizations around the world, Sagan claimed to have had an important epiphany stemming from the main message communicated by the World Fair: “there were other cultures and there would be future times”.4 But what if those other cultures included extraterrestrial cultures, and in those future times there were space-faring civilizations? This idea sparked Sagan’s interest in communicating with alien cultures, both those on Earth and in the Universe.

Human beings have an uncanny ability to create aliens out of one another. At the 1939 World Fair, for example, there were exhibits of African-Americans dressed up and performing as indigenous Africans in exhibitions such as “Frank Buck’s Jungleland”, which stereotyped and exoticised an entire continent of people.5 6 Nor is alienation limited to race. Consider the meeting of US and Soviet troops at the end of World War II. On April 25, 1945, the Soviet Red Army and US Infantry successfully cut the German army in two at the Elbe River, southwest of Berlin. The day is still informally celebrated, and sometimes called “first contact” between the US and Soviet forces. The term “first contact” is an appropriate one, for the soldiers on either side of the river appeared to expect aliens rather than fellow human beings. Luibov Kozinchenko, a Soviet soldier from the Red Army’s 58th Guards Division, later recalled the day stating, as the Americans crossed the river, “We could see their faces. They looked like ordinary people. We had imagined something different.” On the US side, Al Aronson, an American soldier from the US 69th Infantry Division, claimed: “I guess we didn’t know what to expect from the Russians. But when you looked at them and examined them, well, you could put an American uniform on them and they could have been American!”7 Both sides appeared surprised at the “humanness” of these people who had until then seemed quite alien.

Perhaps because of this alienation of people in the Soviet Union, which in the early Cold War period was viewed by the US as a mysterious, technologically advanced society, Sagan frequently reached out to colleagues in the USSR to collaborate on SETI-related projects. While employed at Harvard, he co-authored a book with Soviet astrophysicist I.S. Shklovskii, on the subject of contacting extraterrestrial intelligence. Despite this subject, the book, titled Intelligent Life in the Universe (1966), also addressed threats to Earth civilizations. Co-authored by a Soviet and American in the period after the Cuban Missile Crisis8, Shklovskii and Sagan asked: 

“Another question of some relevance to our own time, and one whose interest is not restricted to the scientists alone, is this: Do technical civilizations tend to destroy themselves shortly after they become capable of interstellar radio communications?” 

In this case, the Cosmic Mirror prompted equal consideration of human civilization, leading Sagan to later spend much of his career speaking out against nuclear weaponry and to dedicate much of his effort to anti-nuclear activism.

Intelligent Life in the Universe no doubt set the stage for Sagan’s later involvement in METI projects, including the Golden Record. Sagan was cognizant of the importance of contact and communication between Earth civilizations, once stating at a joint US-USSR SETI meeting: “in order to undertake meaningful communication with extraterrestrial intelligence it would seem that meaningful communication among terrestrial intelligence is a prerequisite.”9 Similarly, there was a recognition by the Voyager team that the Record was equally, if not mainly, a form of communication with Earthlings, rather than extraterrestrials. A consultant on the Record, Hewlett-Packard executive and SETI engineer Barney Oliver, told Sagan:

“There is only an infinitesimal chance that the plaque will ever be seen by a single extraterrestrial, but it will certainly be seen by billions of terrestrials. Its real function, therefore, is to appeal to and expand  the human spirit, and to make contact with extraterrestrial intelligence a welcome expectation of mankind”.10

Recognizing this truth, and that close attention would be paid by Earthlings to the contents of the record, there were understandably concerns that the Record would be biased from a US-dominant perspective, and so great efforts were made to avoid this bias. Nevertheless, in designing a message which purported to concern extraterrestrials, the Golden Record team often found themselves inexplicably dealing with Earth-based problems.

For example, Sagan decided to include a collection of greetings on the Record, and determined the best thing to do would be to collect audio recordings of simple greetings, such as “Hello”, from a wide variety of Earth languages. His initial thought was to visit the UN headquarters in New York City, suggesting that a delegate from each member nation stop by the sound studio to record their indigenous version of “Hello”. In addition to national and ethnic diversity, Sagan also hoped to have a roughly balanced gender representation among the voices. Unfortunately, he discovered that “virtually all the chiefs of delegations were male, and it was unlikely that they would delegate the privilege of saying ‘Hello’ to the stars to anyone else”.11

This presented a problem for more reasons than one. It left a burning question in the design of the record: Should the team represent our world as it truly is, including the gender imbalance in leadership resulting from a long legacy of patriarchy, as well as other forms of oppression such as racism and war? Lomberg, who was tasked with designing the image collection, noted the team decided against this “truthful” representation of humanity, instead opting for a “best foot forward” approach. There were concerns, for example, that depictions of war or nuclear bombs might be interpreted as hostile and threatening to an extraterrestrial civilization. Therefore, the Record was devoid of images of violence, colonialism, slavery, and other human ills. 

But even a “best foot forward” approach presented problems, because humans on Earth could not agree on what made a good first impression. In a collection of essays on the international music content of the Record, Sagan recounted a story in which the US team selected “The Young Peddler” as its principle example of Russian folk music. The song, which predated the formation of the Soviet Union, had lyrics that told a story of a salesman interacting with a young woman, as they haggled and debated over the price and quality of the goods he was attempting to sell. The lyrics used the argument over goods as a metaphor for romantic courtship and marriage. The Soviet Union was unhappy with the representation of Russian music being a single song honoring a capitalistic transaction, which undermined their ideological stance that human society would eventually move towards communism. Sagan wrote to an unnamed Soviet colleague asking for a better suggestion; the request was taken seriously and debated thoroughly within the USSR Academy of Sciences, which eventually recommended “Moscow Nights”, a popular Soviet song with simple, descriptive lyrics about an evening in Moscow. Unfortunately, the response with their choice arrived too late for incorporation into the record, and Sagan had selected instead “Tchakrulo”, a Soviet Georgian song about revolt against a tyrannical landlord, in an attempt to include a song which aligned with Soviet ideals.12

Prior to his work on the Golden Record, Sagan was already well-versed in the political challenges of extraterrestrial communication, having experienced an earlier example of disagreement on the cosmic representation of humanity. A precursor to the creation of the Golden Record was a plaque Sagan and Drake designed for NASA’s Pioneer 10 and 11 missions. Included on the plaque was an image of a nude human couple, with the male figure waving in greeting. The nude figures prompted national outrage. Some Christian organizations were infuriated that NASA was sending “smut” to represent humanity, while feminist groups had the opposite concern: the figure of the woman was depicted without her genitalia, while the man was not. Feminist groups were also upset that it was the male figure who took the initiative to wave hello, while the female figure calmly stood aside in contrapossto. Other groups were angered that the figures, despite an attempt to make them appear “pan-racial”, were modeled after the Classical Greek ideal, and therefore interpreted by some as being white. Clearly, the introspection caused by crafting messages to aliens evoked passion and disagreement stemming from conflict on Earth.13

The notion that an extraterrestrial worldview can prompt introspection on one’s own world is not a new one. Lomberg once claimed, “I found myself increasingly playing the role of extraterrestrial” as he attempted to figure out how to best represent the Earth in only 115 images.14 In trying to give a fair representation of Earth and human culture, the team tried to view the world around them as outsiders, with the hope that this “outsider” perspective would aid them in constructing a universal view of our planet. Missing from this perspective, however, was the recognition that we often inadvertently replicate the familiar when attempting to summarize the world. We are limited by our situated perspectives, or life as we know it. When assessing the pushback from feminists regarding the depiction of the woman on the Pioneer Plaque, for example, Drake noted Linda Salzman-Sagan, who had drawn the figures for the plaque, was surprised at the accusations of sexism, as she considered herself a “liberated woman” and had not intended to present women as unequal to men. But this example demonstrates the inherent bias of our situated perspectives, even when trying to convey universality.15 Salzman-Sagan might not have consciously considered women less powerful than men, but it certainly was a truthful representation of her contemporary culture, as demonstrated by the earlier UN delegation example. This example also presents a limitation in our ability to convey universality; even when aspiring towards an objective and unbiased perspective, we inevitably betray our own experiences.

The foundations of the Cosmic Mirror, the notion that taking the alien point of view reflects our own biases, prejudices, and perspectives back at us, predates SETI. There is a long history of people evoking beings on other worlds when evaluating their own. For a colonial US example, Benjamin Franklin once evoked the sentiments of the Cosmic Mirror when condemning bringing Africans over to the Americas as slaves, not because of the violation of human rights, but because of aesthetics:

 “And while we are, as I may call it, scouring our planet, by clearing America of woods, and so making this side of our globe reflect a brighter light to the eyes of inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we… darken its people? Why increase the Sons of Africa, by planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all blacks and tawneys, of increasing the lovely white and red?”.16

In that case, Franklin’s evocation of an alien viewpoint reflected his own racism and the paternal colonialism of his time. Clearly, the extraterrestrial perspective may reveal more about individuals and their situated perspectives than it does about the universe or extraterrestrial life. In other words, the messages we send to aliens say more about the messenger than anything else.

In addition to highlighting our biases, however, messages to ET can also reveal our ambitions and hopes. Like the World Fair’s futuristic optimism, Voyager was aspirational and utopian in nature, presenting the human world as we want it to be, rather than how it truly is. This sentiment is perhaps best illustrated in a statement by US President Jimmy Carter, whose Record message optimistically asserted: 

“We human beings are still divided into nation states, but these states are rapidly becoming a single global civilization… this is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations.”17

SETI may someday provide us the opportunity to interact with cultures beyond Earth, but in the present day, no other science shows us as much about ourselves and the culture we create, which prompts us to consider: Do we like what we see?

  1. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
  2. Frank Drake and Dava Sobel, Is Anyone Out There? (1992), pg 115.
  3. Jill Tarter, TED Talk on 20 April 2010 in Mountain View, California
  4. Murmurs of Earth, pg 3
  6. For more information on race and exhibitions, see: Sarah Britton, “‘Come and See the Empire by the All Red Route!’: Anti-Imperialism and Exhibitions in Interwar Britain.” History Workshop Journal, no. 69 (2010): 68-89. Accessed March 25, 2021.
  7. Oral Histories from CNN’s documentary series The Cold War, episode 1, “Comrades”.
  8. The Cuban Missile Crisis is considered one of the most dangerous episodes of the Cold War, when a 13-day military stand-off between the US and USSR nearly resulted in nuclear warfare. The Crisis was instigated by the placement of nuclear missiles by the Soviet Union in Cuba, which is located only 90 miles from Florida, and a retaliatory blockade by the Kennedy Administration.
  9. Carl Sagan, Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (1973), pg xi.
  10. Murmurs of Earth, pg 11
  11. Murmurs of Earth, pg 24
  12. Murmurs of Earth, pg 21
  13. For more on the controversy surrounding the Pioneer Plaque, see Carl Sagan’s book The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective (1973)
  14. Murmurs of Earth, pg 77
  15. Murmurs of Earth, pg 59
  16. Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (1980), pg 64.
  17. Murmurs of Earth, pg 28