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Good Reads  Reference  Physical Sciences  Cosmology & Astronomy

The Vinyl Frontier The Story of the Voyager Golden Record

Popular Science New
By: Jonathan Scott(Author)
NHBS
Raucously funny in places, The Vinyl Frontier is a loving and candid tribute to a remarkable episode in space exploration.
The Vinyl Frontier
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  • The Vinyl Frontier ISBN: 9781472956132 Hardback Mar 2019 Usually dispatched within 6 days
    £16.99
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Selected version: £16.99
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About this book

Have you ever made someone you love a mix-tape?

Forty years ago, a group of scientists, artists and writers gathered in a house in Ithaca, New York to work on the most important compilation ever conceived. It wasn't from one person to another, it was from Earth to the Cosmos.

During the design phase of the Voyager mission, it was realised that this pair of plucky probes would eventually leave our solar system to drift forever in the unimaginable void of interstellar space. With this gloomy-sounding outcome in mind, NASA decided to do something optimistic. They commissioned astronomer Carl Sagan to create a message to be fixed to the side of Voyager 1 and 2 – a plaque, a calling card, a handshake to any passing alien that might one day chance upon them.

The result was the Voyager Golden Record, a genre-hopping multi-media metal LP. A 90-minute playlist of music from across the globe, a sound essay of life on Earth, spoken greetings in multiple languages and more than 100 photographs and diagrams, all painstakingly chosen by Sagan and his team to create an aliens' guide to Earthlings. The record included music by J.S. Bach and Chuck Berry, a message of peace from US president Jimmy Carter, facts, figures and dimensions, all encased in a golden box with instructions on how to play the record and even a handy stylus to drop in the groove. Each track, each sound, and every image has a tale to tell.

The Vinyl Frontier tells the story of NASA's interstellar record, from first phone call to final launch, when Voyager 1 and 2 left our planet bearing their hopeful message from the Summer of '77 to a distant future.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A loving tribute to a remarkable artefact
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 4 Apr 2019 Written for Hardback


    What an appropriately punny title. Indeed, the Voyager Golden Records have boldly gone where no records have gone before. A record with images, spoken greetings, everyday sounds, and classical, contemporary and world music intended as an interstellar hello. Writer, record collector, and self-professed astronomy geek Jonathan Scott here tells the story of one of the most unusual human artefacts to have ever been sent into deep space.

    Quick recap for those who, like me, were born too late. Voyagers 1 and 2 were two robotic probes launched by NASA in 1977 to study the outer solar system. A fortunate planetary alignment only occurring once every 175 years meant that the probes could reach Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto on a Planetary Grand Tour using gravity assist manoeuvres (or gravitational slingshots). After this, they would enter interstellar space, the first human-made objects to do so.

    These were the heady days of the ’60s and’70s, when we beamed the Arecibo Message at a star cluster 25,000 light-years away, and Frank Drake kicked off the first Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) meeting by throwing the idea of the Drake equation at his peers (see e.g. The Drake Equation). In short, the interest in extraterrestrial life and the possibility of communicating with them was at a high. It was in this climate that the famous astronomer Carl Sagan suggested that NASA should include a message for extraterrestrials with the Voyager probes, on the infinitesimally small change that, in a distant future, they might chance upon them.

    As Scott explains, there was a precedent here, with Sagan and Drake both involved in several other messages included with earlier missions. For the Voyager probes, Sagan wanted something bigger, a calling card from humanity. As he brainstormed with friends and colleagues, the idea emerged it should incorporate art, not just hard science. Before long, the idea of a record filled with music, sounds, and human greetings emerged. Oh, and pictures. Encoding those presented a challenge in itself. Each probe would be fitted with a copy of the disc.

    From this point, Scott takes the reader through the hectic period of a few months in which Sagan and a small group of hand-picked artists, engineers, and scientists feverishly worked on putting together a unique sound essay that would show humanity on a good day. Funding was tight, deadlines tighter, and space on the record terribly limited. Worst, NASA could torpedo it last-minute if it didn’t like the contents.

    The whole exercise was rather surreal, involving a head-strong ethnomusicologist and verbose UN delegates who were to provide greetings in as many foreign languages as possible (an exercise in herding cats). There was a veritable torrent of potential musical pieces and pictures from around the world to consider, and, of course, the painstaking process of clearing copyright for each and every item that did end up on the record. And lest we forget, this was the pre-internet era. Phone calls had to be made, letters written, record stores and private collections scoured, analogue equipment invented on the spot.

    All participants wrote of their experiences contributing to this project in the book Murmurs of Earth that was published a year after the launch. Scott credits it as being incredibly important source material in writing this book, next to interviewing those people still alive in 2017. Even so, it leaves plenty of room for him to let his imagination run riot as he writes raucously funny passages how certain phone calls or meetings must have gone, or how certain requests for help must have been received. His portrayal is loving and respectful, sometimes preferring to leave certain people at a happy moment in their story arc. Equally, he is honest and candid – as the 2017 documentary The Farthest also made clear, the contributors to this project have sometimes wildly different memories of what happened or who did what exactly, and Scott doesn’t gloss over discrepancies.

    Why write this book more than 40 years after the facts? Partially because some errors and details of what exactly went on the record only came to light in the wake of the incredibly successful 2017 Kickstarter campaign to properly reissue it. Bar an unsatisfactory 1992 CD-ROM version, and in recent years the sounds and greetings being available on the NASA Soundcloud page, there was no good version until Ozma Records released The Voyager Golden Record, sourced from the archived master. In the process, they did an extremely thorough job fact-checking and properly attributing all contributions.

    And partially because, after Murmurs of Earth, nobody has really looked back on this exceptional endeavour. Unsurprisingly, the record quickly took a backseat to the phenomenal observations the Voyager probes beamed back. Scott gives a very brief overview of their main achievements, but, being a record collector foremost, he purposefully decided to focus The Vinyl Frontier on the story of the record. And this is perfectly defensible. Readers interested in the scientific story of the probes can choose from the 2015 book The Interstellar Age, or, slightly older, the 2011 pop-science book Voyager: Exploration, Space, and the Third Great Age of Discovery. For more technical details on the probes, there are NASA Voyager 1 & 2 Owners' Workshop Manual and NASA’s Voyager Missions (which apparently suffers from poor quality illustrations). Also worth mentioning is the more scholarly Ambassadors from Earth, which is part of the Outward Odyssey series published by the University of Nebraska Press.

    If there is one omission in an otherwise fine book, it is that, bar the two photos on the dustjacket, it contains no illustrations. None. When Scott describes in words some of the images that went onto the record this left me scratching my head. Surely, this will have been discussed with the publisher? However, seeing that even NASA’s JPL page shows only a selection due to copyright restrictions, I think that answers my question. But were there really no photos available of the record, or of it being produced?

    The Vinyl Frontier is a loving, fun and incredibly readable tribute to a remarkable artefact. If you admire Carl Sagan or have a soft spot for space exploration, this book comes highly recommended.
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Biography

Jonathan Scott is a music writer and self-confessed astronomy geek. Formerly a contributing editor to Record Collector magazine, he has edited books about Prince, Cher and the San Francisco psych explosion, and written about Nirvana, the Pogues, the Venga Boys, Sir Patrick Moore and Sir Isaac Newton in a variety of magazines. He received his first telescope aged eight, using it to track Halley's Comet in 1986. Having followed Voyager's planetary fly-bys throughout his childhood, he first got to write about the missions in 2004. If he'd been in charge of the Voyager Golden Record, aliens would assume humanity had three chords.

Popular Science New
By: Jonathan Scott(Author)
NHBS
Raucously funny in places, The Vinyl Frontier is a loving and candid tribute to a remarkable episode in space exploration.
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