How to Read The Golden Record

Ethan Wong

September 2, 2022

In 1977, the Golden Record was sent aboard 2 Voyager spacecrafts if extraterrestrial life encountered them during their journey, both of them now taking a trip through interstellar space, having left our solar system. Led by astronomer Carl Sagan in the 1970s, 115 analog-integrated photos, 12 minutes of sounds of Earth, and 90 minutes of music were carried onto this disk. Different diagrams were sketched onto the record cover displaying directions, while the actual record was double-sided; one side contained sound that could be turned into pictures while the other sounds like music and languages. The closest galaxy lies millions of light years from home–and it’s not even certain if life exists within these far away places–which questions the entire existence of these golden disks. And even if an extraterrestrial special were to encounter one of the Voyagers, what would be the significance of the Golden Record if aliens could not interpret it? The decoding of the Golden Record involves many complicated and seemingly impossible steps for an alien species that the creators assumed would have the basic senses and functions of humans. However, the possibility that this disk could somehow outlive humanity secures the reality of an alien species uncovering our solar system, origin, biology, our history, and the amazing world that we are currently living in.

At first glance, the abundance of complex symbols completely puzzles practically anyone who tries to decode its information. One of the diagrams on the disk is a pulsar map, which doesn’t help translate how to play the record but is intended to help aliens locate our location (the sun being the dot in the center of the map). On the bottom right of the record (depending on how you look at it) there are two circles connected with a line; this represents a transition in a hydrogen atom, where its electron changes the direction of spin every 10,000,000 years. While this direction-change is occurring, it releases energy that astronomers measure as 21cm wavelengths(1420 megahertz). 

This exact number is used to help translate and calculate the rest of the symbols on the record. An alien would need to convert the 1420 megahertz given into seconds (7.042 times 10 to the negative 10 seconds), which would be used later to undefine binary code. To give an example of this, the symbol above the pulsar diagram–-which also has binary code listed underneath–represents the side view of the record. If you convert the number from binary code to decimal form and multiply it by 7.042 times 10 to the negative 10 seconds, you receive the run time for the golden record. The same goes with the diagram above the aforementioned symbol (if you look, it’s the biggest circular diagram on the cover). Taking the same procedure with the different set of binary codes would give you 3.59 seconds, which is the time for a single rotation of the disk. 

The remaining symbols on the cover of the golden record explain the steps to convert the sounds given to pictures. Because the disk was created in the 1970s, NASA scientists and engineers had to be creative with adding pictures, especially when the software aboard the voyager wasn't strong enough to carry hundreds of images. The top right image displays how waveforms should be split into equal distances of 0.008 seconds, while the diagram below represents 512 scan lines that are used to complete a single image. The last two diagrams show the first image, a circle, which is extremely significant to our galaxy and will also inform aliens when they figure out how to decode the images. Fully understanding this process of transferring images through scan lines translates to mounds of research, yet newer technology and coding software have allowed us to decipher these images with ease. Except this was intended for aliens with no assumed understanding of any of this…which brings up the question: how will they make out this record?