- Glenn Sonnenberg
Musings from the Bunker 5/29/20
How do we describe ourselves to others? Not as individuals, but as a civilization… If we met someone from another civilization, how would we convey who we are, what we know, and what matters to us? There are two possible civilizations to whom we would want to share who we are—people that occupy this Earth long after and beings living across the distance of space.
CONVEYING HUMAN KNOWLEDGE TO PEOPLE ON EARTH MILLENNIA FROM NOW
Humankind has been accumulating information for millennia. And, in doing so, libraries have been established to retain that information. One of the great tragedies of the ancient world was the destruction of the great library of Alexandria. The Nazis felt that the best way to create a new master race was to destroy the accumulated wisdom of those who preceded them, making book burning the order of the day.
Books are, remarkably, sturdy things able to last for extraordinarily long periods of time. The technologies have made books nearly indestructible—especially with the advent of acid-free paper.
But now the preferred method to preserve information is digital. And while vast amounts can be stored, all forms of information recording degrades over time. Those binary bits don’t last forever.
If one assumes that our civilization may recede into history thousands of years from now (although it sometimes seems we are trying to cut this time period short), this raises several questions:
1. What do you preserve?
2. What medium do you use to preserve it?
3. Where do you store it?
4. How will you tell people where you hid it?
5. How will it be understood if the language(s) in which it is written is gone?
There are numbers of people thinking about these questions. I am intrigued by a fellow who has decided that digital information will not be stable for long periods time but another substance will be. He intends to etch information in microscopic form on nearly indestructible clay tablets. Here’s a great Atlantic essay about this idea, ultimately to be resident in a salt mine, for the truly long term: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/01/human-knowledge-salt-mine/512552/
There are other methods, one of which is in this BBC video—storing knowledge in a biological form in a manner not yet perfected: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20151122-this-is-how-to-store-human-knowledge-for-eternity
CONVEYING HUMAN KNOWLEDGE TO OTHER CIVILIZATIONS
First, I don’t think we’ve been visited by extra-terrestrials. I don’t think they have figured out how to get around physics and travel faster than the speed of light. And I don’t think there is such a thing as “warp drive.” And, even if either of these could be overcome, they didn’t even call first (my mother said good manners requires this). And why not communicate with national or global leadership? And if here, they only let their presence known to a precious few people? Come on.
To summarize my view on this is a great tracking of UFO sightings, originally published in the Economist. As can be seen in the graphic below, most UFO sightings correlate with when the bars are open.
Everything you need to know about UFOs
But maybe, just maybe, millennia from now, we may make contact with others. The thought experiment is, of course, “if you could only convey a limited amount of information to another civilization—perhaps not humanoid and totally unfamiliar with our language, what would you send?
In the 1970s this parlor game became a reality, as people began to consider the answer to this question. So, with Voyagers 1 and 2, which only recently left the Solar System in the past few years, intellectuals were put to the task of memorializing who we are, where we are, the scientific basis of our life form, our history, and our artistic endeavors. The result of this was a gold disc, engraved with what we thought would be the best medium to convey to other civilizations all this information. Remember, this is in the earliest days of computers. Seemingly endless data could not be stored on a device you could fit in your hand.
Here is the website describing the “Golden Record” and its contents: https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/golden-record/.
Here is just a selection of the 90 minutes of music (which includes mariachi, raga, Pygmy girls from Zaire, Senegal percussion, and Peruvian pipes and drums) that the designers felt important and emblematic enough to include:
• Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F. First Movement, Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, conductor. 4:40
• "Johnny B. Goode," written and performed by Chuck Berry. 2:38
• Bach, "Gavotte en rondeaux" from the Partita No. 3 in E major for Violin, performed by Arthur Grumiaux. 2:55
• Mozart, The Magic Flute, Queen of the Night aria, no. 14. Edda Moser, soprano. Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor. 2:55
• "Melancholy Blues," performed by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven. 3:05
• Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, Sacrificial Dance, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, conductor. 4:35
• Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1. Glenn Gould, piano. 4:48
• Beethoven, Fifth Symphony, First Movement, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, conductor. 7:20
• Navajo Indians, Night Chant, recorded by Willard Rhodes. 0:57
• "Dark Was the Night," written and performed by Blind Willie Johnson. 3:15
• Beethoven, String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Opus 130, Cavatina, performed by Budapest String Quartet. 6:37
Okay, so back down to Earth, and a few book recommendations:
Historical fiction from Jeremy Rosen:
• Edward Rutherford does sagas spanning thousands of years in one place. London is outstanding but his others are good too.
• I like James Clavell especially Shogun and Noble House.
• From Paul Kanin, The Pacific and Other Stories by Mark Helprin. Helprin is a great author; more of his novels in a later Musings.
• From Scrap Marshall, False Calm, by Maria Sonia Cristoff, A novella comprised of a series of stories regarding the inhabitants of the once bustling boom towns of southern Patagonia. Maria Sonia Cristoff returns to the places and spaces of her youth to tell the story of a desolate and sparsely populated land of ghost towns.
I OFFER THIS WITHOUT COMMENTARY
Reach your own conclusions about the writer, his view of the role of the press, and his civility (e.g., people are “garbage”):
Ranks up there with “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” or “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” We probably don’t need to include this tweet and others on the next satellite to the stars…