Cosmos - Carl Sagan (1980)
Chapter 11. THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY
Now that the destinies of Heaven and Earth have been fixed;
Trench and canal have been given their proper course;
The banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates
have been established;
What else shall we do?
What else shall we create?
Oh Anunaki, you great gods of the sky,
what else shall we do?
—The Assyrian account of the creation of Man, 800 B.C.
When he, whoever of the gods it was, had thus arranged in order and resolved that chaotic mass, and reduced it, thus resolved, to cosmic parts, he first moulded the Earth into the form of a mighty ball so that it might be of like form on every side … And, that no region might be without its own forms of animate life, the stars and divine forms occupied the floor of heaven, the sea fell to the shining fishes for their home, Earth received the beasts, and the mobile air the birds … Then Man was born:… though all other animals are prone, and fix their gaze upon the earth, he gave to Man an uplifted face and bade him stand erect and turn his eyes to heaven.
—Ovid, Metamorphoses, first century
In the great cosmic dark there are countless stars and planets both younger and older than our solar system. Although we cannot yet be certain, the same processes that led on Earth to the evolution of life and intelligence should have been operating throughout the Cosmos. There may be a million worlds in the Milky Way Galaxy alone that at this moment are inhabited by beings who are very different from us, and far more advanced. Knowing a great deal is not the same as being smart; intelligence is not information alone but also judgment, the manner in which information is co-ordinated and used. Still, the amount of information to which we have access is one index of our intelligence. The measuring rod, the unit of information, is something called a bit (for binary digit). It is an answer—either yes or no—to an unambiguous question. To specify whether a lamp is on or off requires a single bit of information. To designate one letter out of the twenty-six in the Latin alphabet takes five bits (25 = 2 × 2 × 2 × 2 × 2 = 32, which is more than 26). The verbal information content of this book is a little less than ten million bits, 107. The total number of bits that characterizes an hour-long television program is about 1012. The information in the words and pictures of different books in all the libraries on the Earth is something like 1016 or 1017 bits.* Of course much of it is redundant. Such a number calibrates crudely what humans know. But elsewhere, on older worlds, where life has evolved billions of years earlier than on Earth, perhaps they know 1020 bits or 1030—not just more information but significantly different information.
Of those million worlds inhabited by advanced intelligences, consider a rare planet, the only one in its system with a surface ocean of liquid water. In this rich aquatic environment, many relatively intelligent creatures live—some with eight appendages for grasping; others that communicate among themselves by changing an intricate pattern of bright and dark mottling on their bodies; even clever little creatures from the land who make brief forays into the ocean in vessels of wood or metal. But we seek the dominant intelligences, the grandest creatures on the planet, the sentient and graceful masters of the deep ocean, the great whales.
They are the largest animals† ever to evolve on the planet Earth, larger by far than the dinosaurs. An adult blue whale can be thirty meters long and weigh 150 tons. Many, especially the baleen whales, are placid browsers, straining through vast volumes of ocean for the small animals on which they graze; others eat fish and krill. The whales are recent arrivals in the ocean. Only seventy million years ago their ancestors were carnivorous mammals who migrated in slow steps from the land into the ocean. Among the whales, mothers suckle and care tenderly for their offspring. There is a long childhood in which the adults teach the young. Play is a typical pastime. These are all mammalian characteristics, all important for the development of intelligent beings.
The sea is murky. Sight and smell, which work well for mammals on the land, are not of much use in the depths of the ocean. Those ancestors of the whales who relied on these senses to locate a mate or a baby or a predator did not leave many offspring. So another method was perfected by evolution; it works superbly well and is central to any understanding of the whales: the sense of sound. Some whale sounds are called songs, but we are still ignorant of their true nature and meaning. They range over a broad band of frequencies, down to well below the lowest sound the human ear can detect. A typical whale song lasts for perhaps fifteen minutes; the longest, about an hour. Often it is repeated, identically, beat for beat, measure for measure, note for note. Occasionally a group of whales will leave their winter waters in the midst of a song and six months later return to continue at precisely the right note, as if there had been no interruption. Whales are very good at remembering. More often, on their return, the vocalizations have changed. New songs appear on the cetacean hit parade.
Very often the members of the group will sing the same song together. By some mutual consensus, some collaborative song-writing, the piece changes month by month, slowly and predictably. These vocalizations are complex. If the songs of the humpback whale are enunciated as a tonal language, the total information content, the number of bits of information in such songs, is some 106 bits, about the same as the information content of the Illiad or the Odyssey. We do not know what whales or their cousins the dolphins have to talk or sing about. They have no manipulative organs, they make no engineering constructs, but they are social creatures. They hunt, swim, fish, browse, frolic, mate, play, run from predators. There may be a great deal to talk about.
The primary danger to the whales is a newcomer, an upstart animal, only recently, through technology, become competent in the oceans, a creature that calls itself human. For 99.99 percent of the history of the whales, there were no humans in or on the deep oceans. During this period the whales evolved their extraordinary audio communication system. The finbacks, for example, emit extremely loud sounds at a frequency of twenty Hertz, down near the lowest octave on the piano keyboard. (A Hertz is a unit of sound frequency that represents one sound wave, one crest and one trough, entering your ear every second.) Such low-frequency sounds are scarcely absorbed in the ocean. The American biologist Roger Payne has calculated that using the deep ocean sound channel, two whales could communicate with each other at twenty Hertz essentially anywhere in the world. One might be off the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica and communicate with another in the Aleutians. For most of their history, the whales may have established a global communications network. Perhaps when separated by 15,000 kilometers, their vocalizations are love songs, cast hopefully into the vastness of the deep.
For tens of millions of years these enormous, intelligent, communicative creatures evolved with essentially no natural enemies. Then the development of the steamship in the nineteenth century introduced an ominous source of noise pollution. As commercial and military vessels became more abundant, the noise background in the oceans, especially at a frequency of twenty Hertz, became noticeable. Whales communicating across the oceans must have experienced increasingly greater difficulties. The distance over which they could communicate must have decreased steadily. Two hundred years ago, a typical distance across which finbacks could communicate was perhaps 10,000 kilometers. Today, the corresponding number is perhaps a few hundred kilometers. Do whales know each other’s names? Can they recognize each other as individuals by sounds alone? We have cut the whales off from themselves. Creatures that communicated for tens of millions of years have now effectively been silenced.*
And we have done worse than that, because there persists to this day a traffic in the dead bodies of whales. There are humans who hunt and slaughter whales and market the products for lipstick or industrial lubricant. Many nations understand that the systematic murder of such intelligent creatures is monstrous, but the traffic continues, promoted chiefly by Japan, Norway and the Soviet Union. We humans, as a species, are interested in communication with extraterrestrial intelligence. Would not a good beginning be improved communication with terrestrial intelligence, with other human beings of different cultures and languages, with the great apes, with the dolphins, but particularly with those intelligent masters of the deep, the great whales?
For a whale to live there are many things it must know how to do. This knowledge is stored in its genes and in its brains. The genetic information includes how to convert plankton into blubber; or how to hold your breath on a dive one kilometer below the surface. The information in the brains, the learned information, includes such things as who your mother is, or the meaning of the song you are hearing just now. The whale, like all the other animals on the Earth, has a gene library and a brain library.
The genetic material of the whale, like the genetic material of human beings, is made of nucleic acids, those extraordinary molecules capable of reproducing themselves from the chemical building blocks that surround them, and of turning hereditary information into action. For example, one whale enzyme, identical to one you have in every cell of your body, is called hexokinase, the first of more than two dozen enzyme-mediated steps required to convert a molecule of sugar obtained from the plankton in the whale’s diet into a little energy—perhaps a contribution to a single low-frequency note in the music of the whale.
The information stored in the DNA double helix of a whale or a human or any other beast or vegetable on Earth is written in a language of four letters—the four different kinds of nucleotides, the molecular components that make up DNA. How many bits of information are contained in the hereditary material of various life forms? How many yes/no answers to the various biological questions are written in the language of life? A virus needs about 10,000 bits—roughly equivalent to the amount of information on this page. But the viral information is simple, exceedingly compact, extraordinarily efficient. Reading it requires very close attention. These are the instructions it needs to infect some other organism and to reproduce itself—the only things that viruses are any good at. A bacterium uses roughly a million bits of information—which is about 100 printed pages. Bacteria have a lot more to do than viruses. Unlike the viruses, they are not thoroughgoing parasites. Bacteria have to make a living. And a free-swimming one-celled amoeba is much more sophisticated; with about four hundred million bits in its DNA, it would require some eighty 500-page volumes to make another amoeba.
A whale or a human being needs something like five billion bits. The 5 × 109 bits of information in our encyclopaedia of life—in the nucleus of each of our cells—if written out in, say, English, would fill a thousand volumes. Every one of your hundred trillion cells contains a complete library of instructions on how to make every part of you. Every cell in your body arises by successive cell divisions from a single cell, a fertilized egg generated by your parents. Every time that cell divided, in the many embryological steps that went into making you, the original set of genetic instructions was duplicated with great fidelity. So your liver cells have some unemployed knowledge about how to make your bone cells, and vice versa. The genetic library contains everything your body knows how to do on its own. The ancient information is written in exhaustive, careful redundant detail—how to laugh, how to sneeze, how to walk, how to recognize patterns, how to reproduce, how to digest an apple.
Eating an apple is an immensely complicated process. In fact, if I had to synthesize my own enzymes, if I consciously had to remember and direct all the chemical steps required to get energy out of food, I would probably starve. But even bacteria do anaerobic glycolysis, which is why apples rot: lunchtime for the microbes. They and we and all creatures in between possess many similar genetic instructions. Our separate gene libraries have many pages in common, another reminder of our common evolutionary heritage. Our technology can duplicate only a tiny fraction of the intricate biochemistry that our bodies effortlessly perform: we have only just begun to study these processes. Evolution, however, has had billions of years of practice. DNA knows.
But suppose what you had to do was so complicated that even several billion bits was insufficient. Suppose the environment was changing so fast that the precoded genetic encyclopaedia, which served perfectly well before, was no longer entirely adequate. Then even a gene library of 1,000 volumes would not be enough. That is why we have brains.
Like all our organs, the brain has evolved, increasing in complexity and information content, over millions of years. Its structure reflects all the stages through which it has passed. The brain evolved from the inside out. Deep inside is the oldest part, the brainstem, which conducts the basic biological functions, including the rhythms of life—heartbeat and respiration. According to a provocative insight by Paul MacLean, the higher functions of the brain evolved in three successive stages. Capping the brainstem is the R-complex, the seat of aggression, ritual, territoriality and social hierarchy, which evolved hundreds of millions of years ago in our reptilian ancestors. Deep inside the skull of every one of us there is something like the brain of a crocodile. Surrounding the R-complex is the limbic system or mammalian brain, which evolved tens of millions of years ago in ancestors who were mammals but not yet primates. It is a major source of our moods and emotions, of our concern and care for the young.
And finally, on the outside, living in uneasy truce with the more primitive brains beneath, is the cerebral cortex, which evolved millions of years ago in our primate ancestors. The cerebral cortex, where matter is transformed into consciousness, is the point of embarkation for all our cosmic voyages. Comprising more than two-thirds of the brain mass, it is the realm of both intuition and critical analysis. It is here that we have ideas and inspirations, here that we read and write, here that we do mathematics and compose music. The cortex regulates our conscious lives. It is the distinction of our species, the seat of our humanity. Civilization is a product of the cerebral cortex.
The language of the brain is not the DNA language of the genes. Rather, what we know is encoded in cells called neurons—microscopic electrochemical switching elements, typically a few hundredths of a millimeter across. Each of us has perhaps a hundred billion neurons, comparable to the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Many neurons have thousands of connections with their neighbors. There are something like a hundred trillion, 1014, such connections in the human cerebral cortex.
Charles Sherrington imagined the activities in the cerebral cortex upon awakening:
[The cortex] becomes now a sparkling field of rhythmic flashing points with trains of traveling sparks hurrying hither and thither. The brain is waking and with it the mind is returning. It is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance. Swiftly the [cortex] becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of sub-patterns. Now as the waking body rouses, sub-patterns of this great harmony of activity stretch down into the unlit tracks of the [lower brain]. Strings of flashing and traveling sparks engage the links of it. This means that the body is up and rises to meet its waking day.
Even in sleep, the brain is pulsing, throbbing and flashing with the complex business of human life—dreaming, remembering, figuring things out. Our thoughts, visions and fantasies have a physical reality. A thought is made of hundreds of electrochemical impulses. If we were shrunk to the level of the neurons, we might witness elaborate, intricate, evanescent patterns. One might be the spark of a memory of the smell of lilacs on a country road in childhood. Another might be part of an anxious all-points bulletin: “Where did I leave the keys?”
There are many valleys in the mountains of the mind, convolutions that greatly increase the surface area available in the cerebral cortex for information storage in a skull of limited size. The neurochemistry of the brain is astonishingly busy, the circuitry of a machine more wonderful than any devised by humans. But there is no evidence that its functioning is due to anything more than the 1014 neural connections that build an elegant architecture of consciousness. The world of thought is divided roughly into two hemispheres. The right hemisphere of the cerebral cortex is mainly responsible for pattern recognition, intuition, sensitivity, creative insights. The left hemisphere presides over rational, analytical and critical thinking. These are the dual strengths, the essential opposites, that characterize human thinking. Together, they provide the means both for generating ideas and for testing their validity. A continuous dialogue is going on between the two hemispheres, channeled through an immense bundle of nerves, the corpus callosum, the bridge between creativity and analysis, both of which are necessary to understand the world.
The information content of the human brain expressed in bits is probably comparable to the total number of connections among the neurons—about a hundred trillion, 1014, bits. If written out in English, say, that information would fill some twenty million volumes, as many as in the world’s largest libraries. The equivalent of twenty million books is inside the heads of every one of us. The brain is a very big place in a very small space. Most of the books in the brain are in the cerebral cortex. Down in the basement are the functions our remote ancestors mainly depended on—aggression, child-rearing, fear, sex, the willingness to follow leaders blindly. Of the higher brain functions, some—reading, writing, speaking—seem to be localized in particular places in the cerebral cortex. Memories, on the other hand, are stored redundantly in many locales. If such a thing as telepathy existed, one of its glories would be the opportunity for each of us to read the books in the cerebral cortices of our loved ones. But there is no compelling evidence for telepathy, and the communication of such information remains the task of artists and writers.
The brain does much more than recollect. It compares, synthesizes, analyzes, generates abstractions. We must figure out much more than our genes can know. That is why the brain library is some ten thousand times larger than the gene library. Our passion for learning, evident in the behavior of every toddler, is the tool for our survival. Emotions and ritualized behavior patterns are built deeply into us. They are part of our humanity. But they are not characteristically human. Many other animals have feelings. What distinguishes our species is thought. The cerebral cortex is a liberation. We need no longer be trapped in the genetically inherited behavior patterns of lizards and baboons. We are, each of us, largely responsible for what gets put into our brains, for what, as adults, we wind up caring for and knowing about. No longer at the mercy of the reptile brain, we can change ourselves.
Most of the world’s great cities have grown haphazardly, little by little, in response to the needs of the moment; very rarely is a city planned for the remote future. The evolution of a city is like the evolution of the brain: it develops from a small center and slowly grows and changes, leaving many old parts still functioning. There is no way for evolution to rip out the ancient interior of the brain because of its imperfections and replace it with something of more modern manufacture. The brain must function during the renovation. That is why our brainstem is surrounded by the R-complex, then the limbic system and finally the cerebral cortex. The old parts are in charge of too many fundamental functions for them to be replaced altogether. So they wheeze along, out-of-date and sometimes counterproductive, but a necessary consequence of our evolution.
In New York City, the arrangement of many of the major streets dates to the seventeenth century, the stock exchange to the eighteenth century, the waterworks to the nineteenth, the electrical power system to the twentieth. The arrangement might be more efficient if all civic systems were constructed in parallel and replaced periodically (which is why disastrous fires—the great conflagrations of London and Chicago, for example—are sometimes an aid in city planning). But the slow accretion of new functions permits the city to work more or less continuously through the centuries. In the seventeenth century you traveled between Brooklyn and Manhattan across the East River by ferry. In the nineteenth century, the technology became available to construct a suspension bridge across the river. It was built precisely at the site of the ferry terminal, both because the city owned the land and because major thoroughfares were already converging on the pre-existing ferry service. Later when it was possible to construct a tunnel under the river, it too was built in the same place for the same reasons, and also because small abandoned precursors of tunnels, called caissons, had already been emplaced during the construction of the bridge. This use and restructuring of previous systems for new purposes is very much like the pattern of biological evolution.
When our genes could not store all the information necessary for survival, we slowly invented them. But then the time came, perhaps ten thousand years ago, when we needed to know more than could conveniently be contained in brains. So we learned to stockpile enormous quantities of information outside our bodies. We are the only species on the planet, so far as we know, to have invented a communal memory stored neither in our genes nor in our brains. The warehouse of that memory is called the library.
A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person—perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic.
Some of the earliest authors wrote on clay. Cuneiform writing, the remote ancestor of the Western alphabet, was invented in the Near East about 5,000 years ago. Its purpose was to keep records: the purchase of grain, the sale of land, the triumphs of the king, the statutes of the priests, the positions of the stars, the prayers to the gods. For thousands of years, writing was chiseled into clay and stone, scratched onto wax or bark or leather; painted on bamboo or papyrus or silk—but always one copy at a time and, except for the inscriptions on monuments, always for a tiny readership. Then in China between the second and sixth centuries, paper, ink and printing with carved wooden blocks were all invented, permitting many copies of a work to be made and distributed. It took a thousand years for the idea to catch on in remote and backward Europe. Then, suddenly, books were being printed all over the world. Just before the invention of movable type, around 1450, there were no more than a few tens of thousands of books in all of Europe, all handwritten; about as many as in China in 100 B.C., and a tenth as many as in the Great Library of Alexandria. Fifty years later, around 1500, there were ten million printed books. Learning had become available to anyone who could read. Magic was everywhere.
More recently, books, especially paperbacks, have been printed in massive and inexpensive editions. For the price of a modest meal you can ponder the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the origin of species, the interpretation of dreams, the nature of things. Books are like seeds. They can lie dormant for centuries and then flower in the most unpromising soil.
The great libraries of the world contain millions of volumes, the equivalent of about 1014 bits of information in words, and perhaps 1015 bits in pictures. This is ten thousand times more information than in our genes, and about ten times more than in our brains. If I finish a book a week, I will read only a few thousand books in my lifetime, about a tenth of a percent of the contents of the greatest libraries of our time. The trick is to know which books to read. The information in books is not preprogrammed at birth but constantly changed, amended by events, adapted to the world. It is now twenty-three centuries since the founding of the Alexandrian Library. If there were no books, no written records, think how prodigious a time twenty-three centuries would be. With four generations per century, twenty-three centuries occupies almost a hundred generations of human beings. If information could be passed on merely by word of mouth, how little we should know of our past, how slow would be our progress! Everything would depend on what ancient findings we had accidentally been told about, and how accurate the account was. Past information might be revered, but in successive retellings it would become progressively more muddled and eventually lost. Books permit us to voyage through time, to tap the wisdom of our ancestors. The library connects us with the insights and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. Public libraries depend on voluntary contributions. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.
Were the Earth to be started over again with all its physical features identical, it is extremely unlikely that anything closely resembling a human being would ever again emerge. There is a powerful random character to the evolutionary process. A cosmic ray striking a different gene, producing a different mutation, can have small consequences early but profound consequences late. Happenstance may play a powerful role in biology, as it does in history. The farther back the critical events occur, the more powerfully can they influence the present.
For example, consider our hands. We have five fingers, including one opposable thumb. They serve us quite well. But I think we would be served equally well with six fingers including a thumb, or four fingers including a thumb, or maybe five fingers and two thumbs. There is nothing intrinsically best about our particular configuration of fingers, which we ordinarily think of as so natural and inevitable. We have five fingers because we have descended from a Devonian fish that had five phalanges or bones in its fins. Had we descended from a fish with four or six phalanges, we would have four or six fingers on each hand and would think them perfectly natural. We use base ten arithmetic only because we have ten fingers on our hands.* Had the arrangement been otherwise, we would use base eight or base twelve arithmetic and relegate base ten to the New Math. The same point applies, I believe, to many more essential aspects of our being—our hereditary material, our internal biochemistry, our form, stature, organ systems, loves and hates, passions and despairs, tenderness and aggression, even our analytical processes—all of these are, at least in part, the result of apparently minor accidents in our immensely long evolutionary history. Perhaps if one less dragonfly had drowned in the Carboniferous swamps, the intelligent organisms on our planet today would have feathers and teach their young in rookeries. The pattern of evolutionary causality is a web of astonishing complexity; the incompleteness of our understanding humbles us.
Just sixty-five million years ago our ancestors were the most unprepossessing of mammals—creatures with the size and intelligence of moles or tree shrews. It would have taken a very audacious biologist to guess that such animals would eventually produce the line that dominates the Earth today. The Earth then was full of awesome, nightmarish lizards—the dinosaurs, immensely successful creatures, which filled virtually every ecological niche. There were swimming reptiles, flying reptiles, and reptiles—some as tall as a six-story building—thundering across the face of the Earth. Some of them had rather large brains, an upright posture and two little front legs very much like hands, which they used to catch small, speedy mammals—probably including our distant ancestors—for dinner. If such dinosaurs had survived, perhaps the dominant intelligent species on our planet today would be four meters tall with green skin and sharp teeth, and the human form would be considered a lurid fantasy of saurian science fiction. But the dinosaurs did not survive. In one catastrophic event all of them and many, perhaps most, of the other species on the Earth, were destroyed.* But not the tree shrews. Not the mammals. They survived.
No one knows what wiped out the dinosaurs. One evocative idea is that it was a cosmic catastrophe, the explosion of a nearby star—a supernova like the one that produced the Crab Nebula. If there were by chance a supernova within ten or twenty light-years of the solar system some sixty-five million years ago, it would have sprayed an intense flux of cosmic rays into space, and some of these, entering the Earth’s envelope of air, would have burned the atmospheric nitrogen. The oxides of nitrogen thus generated would have removed the protective layer of ozone from the atmosphere, increasing the flux of solar ultraviolet radiation at the surface and frying and mutating the many organisms imperfectly protected against intense ultraviolet light. Some of those organisms may have been staples of the dinosaur diet.
The disaster, whatever it was, that cleared the dinosaurs from the world stage removed the pressure on the mammals. Our ancestors no longer had to live in the shadow of voracious reptiles. We diversified exuberantly and flourished. Twenty million years ago, our immediate ancestors probably still lived in the trees, later descending because the forests receded during a major ice age and were replaced by grassy savannahs. It is not much good to be supremely adapted to life in the trees if there are very few trees. Many arboreal primates must have vanished with the forests. A few eked out a precarious existence on the ground and survived. And one of those lines evolved to become us. No one knows the cause of that climatic change. It may have been a small variation in the intrinsic luminosity of the Sun or in the orbit of the Earth; or massive volcanic eruptions injecting fine dust into the stratosphere, reflecting more sunlight back into space and cooling the Earth. It may have been due to changes in the general circulation of the oceans. Or perhaps the passage of the Sun through a galactic dust cloud. Whatever the cause, we see again how tied our existence is to random astronomical and geological events.
After we came down from the trees, we evolved an upright posture; our hands were free; we possessed excellent binocular vision—we had acquired many of the preconditions for making tools. There was now a real advantage in possessing a large brain and in communicating complex thoughts. Other things being equal, it is better to be smart than to be stupid. Intelligent beings can solve problems better, live longer and leave more offspring; until the invention of nuclear weapons, intelligence powerfully aided survival. In our history it was some horde of furry little mammals who hid from the dinosaurs, colonized the treetops and later scampered down to domesticate fire, invent writing, construct observatories and launch space vehicles. If things had been a little different, it might have been some other creature whose intelligence and manipulative ability would have led to comparable accomplishments. Perhaps the smart bipedal dinosaurs, or the raccoons, or the otters, or the squid. It would be nice to know how different other intelligences can be; so we study the whales and the great apes. To learn a little about what other kinds of civilizations are possible, we can study history and cultural anthropology. But we are all of us—us whales, us apes, us people—too closely related. As long as our inquiries are limited to one or two evolutionary lines on a single planet, we will remain forever ignorant of the possible range and brilliance of other intelligences and other civilizations.
On another planet, with a different sequence of random processes to make hereditary diversity and a different environment to select particular combinations of genes, the chances of finding beings who are physically very similar to us is, I believe, near zero. The chances of finding another form of intelligence is not. Their brains may well have evolved from the inside out. They may have switching elements analogous to our neurons. But the neurons may be very different; perhaps superconductors that work at very low temperatures rather than organic devices that work at room temperature, in which case their speed of thought will be 107 times faster than ours. Or perhaps the equivalent of neurons elsewhere would not be in direct physical contact but in radio communication so that a single intelligent being could be distributed among many different organisms, or even many different planets, each with a part of the intelligence of the whole, each contributing by radio to an intelligence much greater than itself.* There may be planets where the intelligent beings have about 1014 neural connections, as we do. But there may be places where the number is 1024 or 1034. I wonder what they would know. Because we inhabit the same universe as they, we and they must share some substantial information in common. If we could make contact, there is much in their brains that would be of great interest to ours. But the opposite is also true. I think extraterrestrial intelligence—even beings substantially further evolved than we—will be interested in us, in what we know, how we think, what our brains are like, the course of our evolution, the prospects for our future.
If there are intelligent beings on the planets of fairly nearby stars, could they know about us? Might they somehow have an inkling of the long evolutionary progression from genes to brains to libraries that has occurred on the obscure planet Earth? If the extraterrestrials stay at home, there are at least two ways in which they might find out about us. One way would be to listen with large radio telescopes. For billions of years they would have heard only weak and intermittent radio static caused by lightning and the trapped electrons and protons whistling within the Earth’s magnetic field. Then, less than a century ago, the radio waves leaving the Earth would become stronger, louder, less like noise and more like signals. The inhabitants of Earth had finally stumbled upon radio communication. Today there is a vast international radio, television and radar communications traffic. At some radio frequencies the Earth has become by far the brightest object, the most powerful radio source, in the solar system—brighter than Jupiter, brighter than the Sun. An extraterrestrial civilization monitoring the radio emission from Earth and receiving such signals could not fail to conclude that something interesting had been happening here lately.
As the Earth rotates, our more powerful radio transmitters slowly sweep the sky. A radio astronomer on a planet of another star would be able to calculate the length of the day on Earth from the times of appearance and disappearance of our signals. Some of our most powerful sources are radar transmitters; a few are used for radar astronomy, to probe with radio fingers the surfaces of the nearby planets. The size of the radar beam projected against the sky is much larger than the size of the planets, and much of the signal wafts on, out of the solar system into the depths of interstellar space to any sensitive receivers that may be listening. Most radar transmissions are for military purposes; they scan the skies in constant fear of a massive launch of missiles with nuclear warheads, an augury fifteen minutes early of the end of human civilization. The information content of these pulses is negligible: a succession of simple numerical patterns coded into beeps.
Overall, the most pervasive and noticeable source of radio transmissions from the Earth is our television programming. Because the Earth is turning, some television stations will appear at one horizon of the Earth while others disappear over the other. There will be a confused jumble of programs. Even these might be sorted out and pieced together by an advanced civilization on a planet of a nearby star. The most frequently repeated messages will be station call signals and appeals to purchase detergents, deodorants, headache tablets, and automobile and petroleum products. The most noticeable messages will be those broadcast simultaneously by many transmitters in many time zones—for example, speeches in times of international crisis by the President of the United States or the Premier of the Soviet Union. The mindless contents of commercial television and the integuments of international crisis and internecine warfare within the human family are the principal messages about life on Earth that we choose to broadcast to the Cosmos. What must they think of us?
There is no calling those television programs back. There is no way of sending a faster message to overtake them and revise the previous transmission. Nothing can travel faster than light. Large-scale television transmission on the planet Earth began only in the late 1940’s. Thus, there is a spherical wave front centered on the Earth expanding at the speed of light and containing Howdy Doody, the “Checkers” speech of then Vice-President Richard M. Nixon and the televised inquisitions by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Because these transmissions were broadcast a few decades ago, they are only a few tens of light-years away from Earth. If the nearest civilization is farther away than that, then we can continue to breathe easy for a while. In any case, we can hope that they will find these programs incomprehensible.
The two Voyager spacecraft are bound for the stars. Affixed to each is a gold-plated copper phonograph record with a cartridge and stylus and, on the aluminum record jacket, instructions for use. We sent something about our genes, something about our brains, and something about our libraries to other beings who might sail the sea of interstellar space. But we did not want to send primarily scientific information. Any civilization able to intercept Voyager in the depths of interstellar space, its transmitters long dead, would know far more science than we do. Instead we wanted to tell those other beings something about what seems unique about ourselves. The interests of the cerebral cortex and limbic system are well represented; the R-complex less so. Although the recipients may not know any languages of the Earth, we included greetings in sixty human tongues, as well as the hellos of the humpback whales. We sent photographs of humans from all over the world caring for one another, learning, fabricating tools and art and responding to challenges. There is an hour and a half of exquisite music from many cultures, some of it expressing our sense of cosmic loneliness, our wish to end our isolation, our longing to make contact with other beings in the Cosmos. And we have sent recordings of the sounds that would have been heard on our planet from the earliest days before the origin of life to the evolution of the human species and our most recent burgeoning technology. It is, as much as the sounds of any baleen whale, a love song cast upon the vastness of the deep. Many, perhaps most, of our messages will be indecipherable. But we have sent them because it is important to try.
In this spirit we included on the Voyager spacecraft the thoughts and feelings of one person, the electrical activity of her brain, heart, eyes and muscles, which were recorded for an hour, transcribed into sound, compressed in time and incorporated into the record. In one sense we have launched into the Cosmos a direct transcription of the thoughts and feelings of a single human being in the month of June in the year 1977 on the planet Earth. Perhaps the recipients will make nothing of it, or think it is a recording of a pulsar, which in some superficial sense it resembles. Or perhaps a civilization unimaginably more advanced than ours will be able to decipher such recorded thoughts and feelings and appreciate our efforts to share ourselves with them.
The information in our genes is very old—most of it more than millions of years old, some of it billions of years old. In contrast, the information in our books is at most thousands of years old, and that in our brains is only decades old. The long-lived information is not the characteristically human information. Because of erosion on the Earth, our monuments and artifacts will not, in the natural course of things, survive to the distant future. But the Voyager record is on its way out of the solar system. The erosion in interstellar space—chiefly cosmic rays and impacting dust grains—is so slow that the information on the record will last a billion years. Genes and brains and books encode information differently and persist through time at different rates. But the persistence of the memory of the human species will be far longer in the impressed metal grooves on the Voyager interstellar record.
The Voyager message is traveling with agonizing slowness. The fastest object ever launched by the human species, it will still take tens of thousands of years to go the distance to the nearest star. Any television program will traverse in hours the distance that Voyager has covered in years. A television transmission that has just finished being aired will, in only a few hours, overtake the Voyager spacecraft in the region of Saturn and beyond and speed outward to the stars. If it is headed that way, the signal will reach Alpha Centauri in a little more than four years. If, some decades or centuries hence, anyone out there in space hears our television broadcasts, I hope they will think well of us, a product of fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution, the local transmogrification of matter into consciousness. Our intelligence has recently provided us with awesome powers. It is not yet clear that we have the wisdom to avoid our own self-destruction. But many of us are trying very hard. We hope that very soon in the perspective of cosmic time we will have unified our planet peacefully into an organization cherishing the life of every living creature on it and will be ready to take that next great step, to become part of a galactic society of communicating civilizations.
*Thus all of the books in the world contain no more information than is broadcast as video in a single large American city in a single year. Not all bits have equal value.
†Some sequoia trees are both larger and more massive than any whale.
*There is a curious counterpoint to this story. The preferred radio channel for interstellar communication with other technical civilizations is near a frequency of 1.42 billion Hertz, marked by a radio spectral line of hydrogen, the most abundant atom in the Universe. We are just beginning to listen here for signals of intelligent origin. But the frequency band is being increasingly encroached upon by civilian and military communications traffic on Earth, and not only by the major powers. We are jamming the interstellar channel. Uncontrolled growth of terrestrial radio technology may prevent us from ready communication with intelligent beings on distant worlds. Their songs may go unanswered because we have not the will to control our radio-frequency pollution and listen.
*The arithmetic based on the number 5 or 10 seems so obvious that the ancient Greek equivalent of “to count” literally means “to five.”
*A recent analysis suggests that 96 percent of all the species in the oceans may have died at this time. With such an enormous extinction rate, the organisms of today can have evolved from only a small and unrepresentative sampling of the organisms that lived in late Mesozoic times.
*In some sense such a radio integration of separate individuals is already beginning to happen on the planet Earth.