02/24/2013 01:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Voices Carry

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

On January 20, 1961, people around the world listened to the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Poet Robert Frost approached the podium to read the poem "Dedication," which he'd written for the occasion. But Frost was 86 years old, the day was cold, and the sun glared. Frost recited from memory "The Gift Outright" instead of reading the poem from the page.

"The land was ours before we were the land's," Frost began. Those 16 lines uttered 52 years ago continue to move through space as radio waves, part of the Earth's voice echoing in the cosmos.

In her TEDTalk, Honor Harger gives a brief introduction to radio astronomy. Over the past hundred years or so, we have been able to listen to the universe, to hear the Sun, Jupiter, and even the remnants of the Big Bang. Crackle, pop. We listen to the universe around us and cup our planet's ears -- like SETI"s Allen Telescope Array -- toward specific areas of interest, including places that have conditions that could support life.

If we can hear the constituents of the universe, we must remember that we, too, are part of this universe. The Earth emanates natural and manmade radio waves. What do we sound like?

A few years ago, reported, "Earth emits an ear-piercing series of chirps and whistles [...]. The sound is awful." We don't hear these sounds ourselves because they are generated above the Earth's protective ionosphere, where particles in solar winds hit our planet's magnetic field. This activity sends beams of radio waves outward.

The sound of the Earth's inherent dynamics -- the movement of atmosphere and oceans -- produces a steady drone as well. Lightning produces crackling, which scientists call sferics. You might not think sferics makes much noise, until you consider that lightning strikes occur roughly 100 times per second on our planet, according to NASA"s ears.

Does any of this matter, if no one is out there to listen? The Earth's radio waves don't just evaporate into nothing, do they? No, in fact, "Radio transmitters on Earth cause charged particles to leak out of the inner Van Allen radiation belt in space," according to The New Scientist.

"We explore space to understand the universe but also to better understand who we are in this vast expanse." -- Anna Leahy and Douglas Dechow

As portrayed in the movie Contact, our earliest radio broadcasts have travelled out into space like a ripple in water at the speed of light. Frost's poem is now 52 light years away. Because the waves spread out as they travel, the signal's strength diminishes; every time the distance is doubled, the strength is quartered. If someone or something is picking up that inauguration day transmission, the words are indistinguishable from all the other background noise.

We haven't intended our poetry to be heard in space. We haven't thought much about what we're saying. One of the few concerted efforts to hone our cosmic voice was the Voyager Golden Record.

In 1977, NASA, with a committee headed by astrophysicist Carl Sagan, designed two phonograph records, then put each aboard a Voyager spacecraft. The record contains greetings in 56 languages, natural sounds like thunder and crickets chirping, and music from around the world, all of which are in audio. The disc also includes, in analog form, 115 images, from planets to fetuses.

Perhaps the most interesting information to be included in our official, communal voice is an hour-long recording of the brainwaves and heartbeats of Ann Druyan. Hooked up to machines, she was given a list of things to ponder, starting with the history of the Earth. This woman went on to marry Sagan, with whom she would work on the television series Cosmos. When we saw Druyan at PlanetFest in 2012, she described her contribution to the Golden Record as the heartbeat of a young woman in love.


Currently, both Voyagers are approaching the edge of our solar system and will carry humanity's voices farther away toward the billions and billions of stars. Sagan had said of the mission, "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet."

Whenever we learn about the universe -- when we listen to radio waves of the Sun, Jupiter, or the Big Bang -- we learn about Earth too. We explore space to understand the universe but also to better understand who we are in this vast expanse. As Frost, in "The Gift Outright" at the inauguration of the president who decided we should go to the Moon, said about the land -- our country and our planet -- "Such as she was, such as she would become." Even as we hear the universe crackle, let us also listen to our own voices to better know who we were and who we might become.

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