When the Voyager spacecraft were launched 40 years ago, each of them carried a Golden Record (that’s the official name), which is a gold-plated LP featuring the sounds of earth curated by astronomer Carl Sagan. It was the cosmic equivalent of tossing a message in a bottle into the ocean.
The contents of the record have been documented many times and in many places. But what’s this about a mystery laugh? The Atlantic looks into it.
The record, curated by a team led by the astrophysicist Carl Sagan, featured the music of Beethoven, Chuck Berry, Kesarbai Kerkar, and Blind Willie Johnson, and various folk music from around the world. Images, placed electronically on the phonograph, included photographs of a mother nursing her baby; a woman with a microscope; an astronaut in space; highway traffic in Ithaca, New York; the pages of an open book; a violin with sheet music; men laying bricks to build a house in Africa; a woman eating grapes at a supermarket; and a number of diagrams and illustrations of concepts like continental drift and vertebrate evolution. There were also audio clips depicting scenes of life on Earth—the sounds of rushing wind and the roar of ocean tides, whale songs, elephants trumpeting, human footsteps and human laughter.
It occurred to me last fall that I’d never actually heard the laughter track—and that I wanted to. What sort of laugh did the record’s producers select as a depiction of our species? And whose laugh was it? It could have been a chuckle, a snort, a guffaw, a snicker. It could have been anything from the irresistible staccato of a baby giggling to a deep-throated mwahaha of a Hollywood villain. But my idle curiosity led me to more and more questions, and those questions turned into a months-long investigation into the origins of the Golden Record.