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Notes in an Interplanetary Bottle


On August 20, 1977, NASA launched Voyager 2, a spacecraft which sent back photos ofJupiter and Saturn before leaving the solar system. Voyager 2 carried a message for any extraterrestrials who might someday salvage it: a gold, plated phonograph record containing, among other things, 118 electronically encoded photographs of life on our planet, and ninety minutes of music ranging from a Brandenburg Concerto to “Johnny B. Goode.”

The Voyager Interstellar Record, according to Carl Sagan, its executive producer, was designed to convey “a hopeful rather than a despairing view of humanity and its possible future.” It therefore contains no baleful images of death and destruction. But what if some hostile alien, having received so benign and welcoming a message, subsequently decides to pay us an unfriendly call? Harper’s Magazine invited a diverse group of cultural observers to help frame a new message aimed at forestalling any extraterrestrial attempt at conquest or tourism: one suggesting that the earth, for all its manifold beauties, is nonetheless a terrible place to visit.

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November 1986