Copernicus and Pioneer Plaque

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    • 00:34

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: Our world is full of diagrams,graphic representations of everythingfrom the solar system to the hidden origins of life.They have a unique ability to express complex ideas simply,and an intellectual and artistic beautythat has the power to inspire awe and change our perceptions.

    • 01:03

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: Diagrams can exert a wonderful and unpredictable influencein the arts as well as in science.These two diagrams take us out of our own world,into the world that lies beyond us--the heavens, space, the outer edges of our understanding.

    • 01:24

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: Copernicus' diagram of the solar system, and the Pioneer Plaque.This diagram takes our world into deep space.Its purpose is to communicate fundamental facts about usto life on other planets.And it left Earth in 1972 on board the Pioneer 10 space

    • 01:46

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: probe.It's the most enterprising and optimistic diagramever created.A diagram to transcend all languages and cultures.And now, it's billions of miles away, beyond our solar system.It was a hugely ambitious project.One single diagram would have to be

    • 02:07

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: Earth's message to the stars.500 years earlier, this is where we thought we were.In 1543, this diagram made by an obscure but highly educatedpolish cleric showed the world an ideathat was truly revolutionary, an ideaso radical that he was afraid even to publish it.

    • 02:31

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: His name was Nicolaus Copernicus.And he's revered today as the inventor of modern astronomy.Here he is in a rather romanticized 19th centurypainting, surrounded by the tools of his trade, tools thathelped him to create this extraordinary diagram, whichis as pertinent today as it was 500 years ago.And it was this diagram that helped

    • 02:53

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: him to answer some of the biggestquestions on the scientific books.What does the universe look like?How does it work?And where, crucially, are we in it?In his own time, his concept was an offenseagainst every cherished beliefs of the age, an offense

    • 03:13

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: against learning, against the past, against the Bible.It took the world 150 years to accept his revolutionary ideas.And by then, the world had all but forgotten who he was.His diagram revealed the solar system as we know it.

    • 03:37

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: Once it was drawn, our sense of our place in the cosmoswould never be the same again.

    • 03:58


    • 04:21

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: At the cathedralin the town of Frombork in Northeast Poland,I'm witnessing an extraordinary event-- an elaborate funeralmarking the end of a 200 year searchfor the remains of a Polish churchman and scientist whowas originally buried here in an unmarked grave in 1543.

    • 04:44

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: The remains are those of Nicolaus Copernicus.This is a pretty amazing event for the locals here, but alsofor everyone else.There are historians, astronomers, physicists,and mathematicians from all over the world.And they've come here to see the final, formal layingto rest of a man who died nearly 500 years ago,an unsung hero who pretty much invented modern astronomy

    • 05:07

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: and started the scientific revolution.Copernicus' world changing book was De Revolutionibus OrbiumCoelestium-- "On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres."By the time it appeared in print,he was already on his deathbed.

    • 05:34

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: At a time when science, the Bible, and plain common senseall agreed that the Earth was staticat the center of the cosmos, Copernicusdared to say different.This was a dangerous idea, one thatthreatened the very foundations of Western thought itself.

    • 06:07

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: This book represents Copernicus' life work.But it's the diagram at the beginning of the book whichcaptures, in an instant, what the whole book is about.Now, I've known about this diagram for a long time.But this is the first time I've actually seen it in reality.It's really rather beautiful.What this book is all about is the facts.

    • 06:27

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: So this is the universe not with the Earth at the center,but the sun.And here, we see the planets going aroundin concentric circles.The Earth is right out here.Saturn is right at the edge.I think it's hard for us to realize today quite howrevolutionary an idea this would've been at the time.Copernicus certainly realized.He was afraid to publish the diagram.

    • 06:48

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: He was frightened of the scorn he'dget for the absurdity of such an idea.His diagram shows the planets, each numbered and namedin Latin, moving around the sun in circular orbits.It was a vision of the heavens that no one in the world

    • 07:09

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: had ever seen, one that flew in the face of the mostfundamental ideas about the universe.For over 2,000 years, men had believedthat the Earth was static at the center of the cosmos,with the sun and planets moving around it.To try to prove otherwise was an act

    • 07:29

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: of madness and heresy rolled into one.You can see Copernicus in action.There are lots of little crossingsout, just like the crossings out I do in my own work.There are tables here still waiting for datato be put into them.And he's even drawn a little meteor at the top of this page

    • 07:50

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: here.It's really beautiful.And you can see it's just full of calculationsthat Copernicus was making at a timewhen he didn't have a computer to help him out with it all.And it's just beautiful the way he'swritten his manuscript around the diagram itself.So there it is.The first surviving diagram in human history

    • 08:12

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: that puts the sun at the center of the universe.Copernicus had sewn the seed of what we nowknow as the heliocentric system.But he wasn't the first man to think about it.The Greeks had toyed with the idea.

    • 08:33

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: One of them, Aristarchus, seems to have taken it seriouslyand suffered ridicule as a resultfor pursuing an idea that flew in the face of accepted reason.Copernicus would devote his life to whatseemed like an impossible theory, a heliocentric universein which the Earth was both spinning and orbiting

    • 08:55

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: the sun at high speed.I wonder if you could explain to me whatyou think is the power of that diagramthat Copernicus drew in the book.

    • 09:06

      OWEN GINGERICH: The really greatest scientistsare ones who are unifiers.And what Copernicus is doing is unifying the planetary system.You can say he invented the solar system.

    • 09:19

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: Why was Copernicusreluctant to publish?

    • 09:24

      OWEN GINGERICH: He said that he was afraid of being laughed offthe stage and I wondered, how did he say that in Latin?And the Latin word is explodendum.Who would have guessed that the original meaning of the word"explode" is to be hissed or booed off the stage?

    • 09:49

      OWEN GINGERICH [continued]: He was afraid that people would consider it too ridiculous.

    • 09:52

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: Why do you think Copernicus felt the needto challenge the status quo?After all, there had been a pretty good explanationof how the planets worked.

    • 10:00

      OWEN GINGERICH: If you just wantedto make predictions of where you would findthe planets in the sky, the Ptolemeic systemwas working well enough.Actually, what Copernicus did was notto make it much more accurate, but he paved the wayfor a much more accurate system.

    • 10:20

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: It seems such a natural idea to us.Why do people just find it difficult to accept this, evenscientists?

    • 10:27

      OWEN GINGERICH: Well Copernicus, I think,really believed the cosmos was made that way.But for most people, it was just plain silly.A ridiculous idea!Why?Because if the Earth is spinning around every 24 hours,why don't people just fly off?

    • 10:48

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: We now know that the Earth spinsat 1,000 miles an hour, and it orbitsthe sun at a staggering 18 miles a second.Copernicus was the first person in historyto identify this double global movement of spin and orbit.

    • 11:10

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: It was an extraordinary insight, but one that he couldn't prove.It took Newton's discovery of gravityto explain why we don't fly off.But that was over 140 years after Copernicus died.So his apparently simple diagram posed seemingly unanswerable

    • 11:34

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: questions.Even worse, it contradicted one of the greatest scientistsof the classical past, the Roman astronomer Ptolemy.This is the so-called geocentric universeas proposed by Claudius Ptolemy.

    • 11:56

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: It has the Earth static at the center of the universe,and the other planets and the sun, as well,are moving around the Earth.I think in this diagram, you reallyget the idea of the Earth at the center of the universe.Ptolemy had been dead for 1,000 years when Copernicus was born,but his ideas were still considered as gospel truth.

    • 12:19

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: At universities across Europe from here in Oxfordthrough to Warsaw, students and scholars and professorswould learn that this was their model of the universe.Above all, this is what they regarded as the truth.But the truth came at a price.

    • 12:39

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: Ptolemy had to make sense of the whole rangeof planetary movements as seen from his static Earth.To do it, he was forced to inventcomplex loop-de-loop orbits that he called epicycles.For Copernicus, the Ptolemy systemwas too complex, too cumbersome.

    • 13:01

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: Planetary orbits, he was convinced,should be simple and circular, harmonious and beautiful.In my Oxford college [INAUDIBLE],I'm meeting a historian with a keen understanding of just howdifficult a challenge Copernicus faced.

    • 13:21

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: Dr. Alan Chapman.

    • 13:26

      ALAN CHAPMAN: First of all, let'sface it and forget all we know about the last 500 yearsof astronomy.Do we seem to be flying through space at 18 miles a second?Why, when you drop an object, does itfall straight down rather than flying off into the air?Common sense and experience says the Earthwas fixed in the center of the universe.

    • 13:47

      ALAN CHAPMAN [continued]: Also then, not only you have Ptolemy,you have the philosophy of Aristotle.And what Aristotle had was a whole systemof physics explaining the weather,explaining metereological phenomenon, comets,all kinds of things.And Aristotle's system was based entirely

    • 14:09

      ALAN CHAPMAN [continued]: on an Earth-centered system.So in other words, if you lost your cosmology,if you abandoned Ptolemy and threw him out of the windowand said the Earth is spinning in space,you lost all the physics of Aristotle, as well.And so really, all you get with the Copernican theoryis one thing.

    • 14:29

      ALAN CHAPMAN [continued]: You explain the planetary retrogradesmore simple than with epicycles.But for that, you lose the rest of classical physics.So to most people, it was hardly a trade off.

    • 14:44

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: But it wasn't justthe Ptolemy loving world of scholarsthat Copernicus had to worry about.It was also the much more powerful world of the Church.The Bible made it clear in Psalm 93 that Ptolemy was right."Thou has fixed the Earth, immovable and firm," it reads.

    • 15:08

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: To undermine scripture was heresy.This would have been alarming enoughfor any Christian scholar in Europe.But what made these theological objections even tougherand more dangerous for Copernicuswas the fact that he was a canon lookingafter one of the alters in this very cathedral in Frombork.Inside here, he was a man of faith

    • 15:28

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: who couldn't countenance publishingsuch an extraordinary new idea.Out there, however, he was a mathematician.And he couldn't leave the idea alone.Copernicus moved to Frombork around 1510.He was then in his mid 30s, an educated man,

    • 15:51

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: a graduate of the Universities of Krakow, Bologna, and Padua.He had degrees in law, divinity, and medicine,and spoke several languages.He would spend the rest of his lifehere, a servant of the great cathedral,where his uncle held the powerful post of bishop.

    • 16:14

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: But just across the courtyard from the cathedralis the building that represented his other life, the tower whenhe carried out his revolutionary work, work so radical,he was afraid to publish it.

    • 16:37

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: During this time in Frombork, Copernicusmade many observations of the night sky using instrumentslike this one here called an armillary sphere.What he would do is to line up this circle with somethingcalled the ecliptic, which is the motionthat the sun makes through the sky.Then, he would use these other circles to line up the planetsand measure their changing angles as they move.

    • 16:59

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: This is actually a piece of old technology.Even the ancient Greeks would have been using this one.Copernicus believed that Ptolemy's explanationfor the motion of the planets through the skywas just too complicated, too unwieldy to be true.Copernicus believed that there mustbe a much more elegant, beautiful solutionfor the observations that he was making.

    • 17:20

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: Many scientists, me included, believethat that desire for simplicity and beautyoften leads to the truth.Drawing the diagram, he began to seethe simplicity and beauty he sought.Each planet on a uniform, circular orbit around the sun.It was a radical, new system for the whole universe.

    • 17:48

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: But the diagram's consequences seemed unthinkable.Earth was ousted from its unique, central positionand hurled millions of miles out into the dark void space.And even if it was right, how could he ever prove it?

    • 18:10

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: His manuscript reveals what he went through to try to do it.He begins with a description of his heliocentric universe.But almost all the pages in this extraordinary workare not about words, but numbers,because the key for Copernicus was mathematics.

    • 18:31

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: As a mathematician, it's these pagesfull of calculations, theorems, and geometric drawingsthat I find really exciting.And these, that underpin the diagram.Here's Copernicus, the mathematician,working out an incredibly abstract mathematical problem.It was a scientific number crunching exerciseon an epic scale.

    • 18:52

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: He took the data from thousands of yearsworth of previous astronomical observations, combined itwith his own, and painstakingly recalculatedall the planetary positions to seeif his bold new theory fitted the facts.And the more he worked, the more hebecame convinced that he was right.

    • 19:15

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: Pedro, as a cosmologist, how accurateis Copernicus' diagram of a model of the solar systemtoday?

    • 19:21

      PEDRO FARRAR: Well, it's still pretty accurate.We know that there's another planet out here, Neptune.But it looks very much like this.I mean, of course the distances aren't exactly right.But the orbits are pretty circular.

    • 19:34

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: What's your sense of the scaleof Copernicus' achievement in actually producing this diagram500 years ago?

    • 19:40

      PEDRO FARRAR: I think it's incredible.I mean, I think it basically kickstarted a chain of events which pushed usinto being able to do what we do today.He pointed out that we're not at the center of the solar system.But we now know that the solar system isn't evenat the center of the galaxy.What we know is the Milky Way, it'sabout 24,000 light years away from the center.And our galaxy is one of many billions

    • 20:03

      PEDRO FARRAR [continued]: of galaxies in the universe.So we're pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

    • 20:08

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: Isn't it quite strikingthat in our very modern age that we're stillcoming back to this 500-year-old diagramas our picture of our solar system?

    • 20:19

      PEDRO FARRAR: Well, it's fascinating because it's right.So if you sit in front of your child, you will draw this.If you want to explain the solar system,this is what you'd draw.If we ask an adult, can you describe the solar system,this is what they'll draw.So I think this is a wonderful piece of information.It's a wonderful diagram.

    • 20:45

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: But Copernicus'extraordinary diagram might neverhave seen the light of day.By 1540, he was 67, and had been workingon his sun-centered cosmos for over three decades.But still, he was afraid to publish.In that year, however, the arrival

    • 21:07

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: in Frombork of a young German mathematicianchanged the fate of Copernicus and the diagram forever.His name was Georg Rheticus.We don't know for certain how Rheticus even found outabout this startling new theory.The now elderly Copernicus had produceda handwritten pamphlet, never published,

    • 21:28

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: which he distributed amongst friends.Perhaps Rheticus had heard about this.However he found out, Rheticus has gone down in historyas the world's first Copernican.In fact, in 1540, he was probablythe world's only Copernican.But Rheticus had come here with a purpose--to persuade Copernicus to publish.

    • 21:50

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: After decades working alone, Copernicus finallyhad a student and supporter.Perhaps Rheticus gave the old man courage,because eventually the young German left Fromborkwith the manuscript and permission to publish.Soon, it was in print.

    • 22:10

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: And here it is.Once the ink had dried on the diagram,the way we viewed ourselves and our place in the universechanged forever.Legend has it that the last pages of the printer's proofswere placed in Copernicus' hands just before he died.

    • 22:35

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: So as he departed the world, his revolutionary bookrepresenting his whole life's work arrived.And what did the world make of it?Some were appalled.The protestant firebrand John Calvin is said to have asked,who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus

    • 22:59

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: above that of the Holy Spirit?And the trouble didn't end there.In 1616, the Inquisition placed the bookon its index of prohibited books,and issued 10 instructions about how the book should be amendedto meet theological requirements.

    • 23:21

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: By inserting words like "hypothesis,"they practically muted the potency of this book,changing it from being a description of physical realityinto being just some theoretical, abstract game.Copernicus wasn't hissed off the stage.He was frog marched out of the theater.

    • 23:45

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: His early supporters, among them the great scientist Galileo,found themselves in hot water.He was accused of heresy and placed under house arrestfor supporting Copernicus' ideas.But as the Scientific Revolution got under way,the once heretical diagram began to enter the mainstream.

    • 24:10

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: In 1660, this elaborate, celestial axisby mapmaker Andreas Solarius, turned the diagraminto high art, with a smiling sun,the planets rendered into lavish beauty,and Copernicus himself immortalized on the page.

    • 24:31

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: But it took Isaac Newton's discovery of gravitynearly 150 years after Copernicusdied to finally convince the world that he was right.Today, our notion of space still owes everythingto Copernicus and his diagram.And 500 years after it was made, the man himself

    • 24:53

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: is finally receiving the honor that never came to him in life.[CHOIR SINGS]

    • 25:13

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: He was originallyburied in the cathedral here in Frombork in 1543, the very yearhis revolutionary diagram was first published.We don't know why his grave was never marked.But since 1802, devotees of his work and lifehave been searching for his remains.

    • 25:40

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: Finally, in 2008, a skeleton was found.And miraculously, so were some hairs inside oneof the books in Copernicus' library.A DNA comparison proved a match, and a 200 year searchwas at an end.

    • 26:07

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: His story really comes full circlehere at his grave in Frombork.It's a genuinely moving experienceto see the final laying to rest of such an iconic figurein the history of science.Although the man is now just bones in a box,the diagram which sits above his grave will live forever.It's a diagram which changed our understandingof the nature of the universe and our place in it.

    • 26:35

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: But there is one diagram that goes beyond that worldas seen by Copernicus.While he showed us where we are in the solar system,one diagram was designed for those out there to find us.

    • 26:59

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: At 8:42 PM on Thursday, the 2nd of March,1972, the unmanned space probe Pioneer 10is launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida.It heads for the huge planet of Jupiter,and then on towards the edge of our solar system.

    • 27:25

      CARL SAGAN: By no means out of the questionthat there are forms of life in the cloud of Jupiter.Indeed, if we viewed the solar system from afar,I think you could make an argument that life on Jupiterwas more likely than life anywhere else, includingon the Earth.

    • 27:42

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: Pioneer 10's missionwas to take detailed photographs of Jupiter and its moons,and to study the atmosphere of outer space, its particlesand solar winds, the flux and velocity of the abundant dustparticles.But Pioneer 10 also had a second mission.Fermi attached the antenna support struts protected

    • 28:05

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: from erosion by interstellar dust--it was the most enterprising, artistic, and scientificdiagram of all time, the ultimate diagram, the PioneerPlaque.In carefully engraved graphic imagesand mathematical symbols, the plaquewould reveal the Earth's location in the galaxy

    • 28:26

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: and would tell extraterrestrial intelligent lifewhat humans look like.NASA were extremely excited.The problem facing the designers washow to decide what to include, what science and what art.

    • 28:51

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: It was made of gold covered aluminium.There were, in fact, two copies of the plaquethat were sent out into space, one on Pioneer 10,the other on Pioneer 11, launched a year later.Both were created from this template,the master Pioneer Plaque.

    • 29:15

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: It's really extraordinarily heavy.Of course, the original plaque that was on the pioneerwould have been about this size, and much lighter,because you wouldn't want to disruptthe balance of the spacecraft.And this is really quite a special diagrambecause all the other diagrams I've seen in this serieshave been drawn.And this one is literally dug out of this piece of metal.

    • 29:43

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: The diagram has a beauty that no drawn reproductioncould imitate.It has a curious period feel about it,as well, which is difficult to pinpoint,but is definitely there.Perhaps it's the font, the width of the drawn lines.And what are those haircuts?

    • 30:03

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: These human figures do look classically '70s American.The intention behind the plaque wasto communicate rudimentary informationabout the planet Earth and its inhabitants.It's actually a really simple picture,but that's the point about a diagram.You need to throw away information

    • 30:24

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: so you just keep what is essential.Essentially, it's a real nice combinationof mathematics and art.But what does it all mean?Some of it's pretty obvious.The pictures of the man and the woman, I understand.If you go down to the bottom here,there are lots of little circles.

    • 30:45

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: And these are a picture of our solar system,the planets in order.So we've got the sun here.We've got Mercury, Venus, Earth, and this is where we live.And above each of the planets are little things whichI know actually are binary numbers.They're ones and dashes.Instead of a zero, which might look like another planet

    • 31:06

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: actually, the artist has used a dash to indicate nothing.And you can tell what that the plaque camefrom the third planet, our planet, planet Earth,because there's a line being drawn from the planetout to a little picture of the pioneer probe.The whole design assumes that binary mathematics, and indeed

    • 31:28

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: drawing, are not only internationalbut universal languages.At first glance, interpreting the diagram is not easy.This dumbbell, for instance, is a unit of measurement, I think.And this wonderful star diagram which fans out across the plank

    • 31:49

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: depicts the location of certain pulsars or pulsating stars.Now, how does that work?It's intriguing, because the very nature of this diagramis that it's two dimensional.And it's actually depicting a three dimensional universe.The whole plaque's encoding such interesting information,

    • 32:10

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: but how did they decide what they were going to include?What do all these symbols mean?And if you're representing life on Earth,then why did they draw the figures naked?The plaque was designed by two astrophysicist, Carl Saganand Frank Drake.

    • 32:31

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: And together with Carl Sagan's then wife, Linda,they conceived the plaque and supervised its production.

    • 32:40

      FRANK DRAKE: Well, we thought the most interesting thingto the extraterrestrials would be, what are we like?And so we wanted figures of a man and a woman.And then, some information about what planetor place this plaque came from.And how long ago?Because it may be millions of years until the plaqueis intercepted by someone.

    • 33:01

      FRANK DRAKE [continued]: And so we needed a means to establishtime and place of launch of the spacecraft.And we did that by using a map showingthe location of 14 pulsars with respect to the sun.

    • 33:12

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: So how does it do all that?

    • 33:14

      FRANK DRAKE: Well, the center of the maprepresents the solar system.And from there, we see lines going out radially.Each line represents the direction and distanceto a pulsar.A pulsar is the remnant of a supernova explosion, whichspins very rapidly and, as a result,sends out very uniformly spaced in time pulses of radio

    • 33:39

      FRANK DRAKE [continued]: emission.So this was a way by which the extraterrestrials, evenafter millions of years, could recognize which objectwas being described by its pulsing frequency.And they pulsar's pulsing frequencyis shown in binary arithmetic, which is the simplest numbersystem to provide time and length information.

    • 33:60

      FRANK DRAKE [continued]: And of course, they have 14 independent valuesfor this from which they could deducefrom where and when the plaque was launched.

    • 34:08

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: Is 14 just enough?

    • 34:11

      FRANK DRAKE: Actually, two pulsars would have been enough.But we gave them 14 I guess just to make life easier for them.

    • 34:20

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: The universe is three dimensional.So is there information here about what angleyou're looking at?

    • 34:27

      FRANK DRAKE: Actually, there is.Now of course, our galaxy is very nearly flat.However, there is, on each line, if you look, a mark--

    • 34:37

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: Ah yes.

    • 34:38

      FRANK DRAKE: Which shows the distanceabove or below the galactic plane that the pulsar is.So that actually provides the third dimension,exactly what you're concerned with.

    • 34:47

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: Ah, very interesting.Drake and Sagan assumed that the language of science,and especially mathematics, must becommon to all technological civilizations.If true, an extraterrestrial intelligencewould understand the plaque because science and maths wouldbe the same throughout the universe.

    • 35:10

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: So far, they've worked out how to show where the Earth was.Now, they decided that it might beuseful to include a means to calculate time and distance.The basic chemistry of the universe provided the answer.

    • 35:23

      FRANK DRAKE: We needed to give thema time unit which was universal.And we did that with the sketch up here,which shows the hydrogen atom in its two lowest energy states.And when the hydrogen atom switches from one energy stateto the other, it radiates a radio wavewith a certain wavelength.

    • 35:44

      FRANK DRAKE [continued]: And with a certain frequency of oscillation.The time between oscillations becomes the time unit.And the wavelength becomes the length unit for the message.

    • 35:55

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: Could you explainhow you can work out the height of the woman from the plaque?

    • 36:01

      FRANK DRAKE: The height can be worked outbecause we have here a line drawn at her feetand, up here, a line at her head.And the distance there and there, of course,is her height.And sure enough, there is a numberhere in binary, which is the number eight.So this is telling us that the typical human womanis eight somethings high.

    • 36:21

      FRANK DRAKE [continued]: Well, what's the something?It's the wavelength.So it's 8 times 8 inches, roughly,which is 64 inches, which is, in fact, the average heightof human females on Earth.

    • 36:42

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: Everyone involved in the Pioneer projectwas star struck.Carl Sagan had been involved in NASA's space programsince the 1950s.He'd been an adviser to the Apollo11 astronauts prior to that groundbreakingflight to the moon.He wanted the world to share his excitement

    • 37:02

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: about the possibilities of space.

    • 37:05

      CARL SAGAN: In the remote contingencythat there are interstellar space-faring societies whichmight someday pick up this derelict and no longerradioing, we thought we would put a message on it.And the Plaque has served a very useful purposein making us think about what sort of impressionwe might wish to give to the cosmos.

    • 37:28

      KEAY DAVIDSON: When Carl was young,growing up in the 1930s and '40s,he grew up reading popular science fictionmagazines, astounding, amazing.He loved to speculate about the possibilitythat flying saucers came from other worlds.The flying saucer craze was very big back in the '40s.He eventually outgrew flying saucersand became a big skeptic about them.

    • 37:49

      KEAY DAVIDSON [continued]: But I think that useful love of the possibility that thereis life out there in space enthralled him his entire life.And he never really outgrew it.It was sort of like someone who's very religious whenthey're young, and they eventuallyoutgrow the details of the religion,but they never outgrow its spirit.

    • 38:08

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: Is it important to understandthe politics of the time to really understand this message?

    • 38:12

      KEAY DAVIDSON: Yes, very much so.Because remember, the early 1970s was a time--and I was a teenager at the time-- when Americanswere utterly traumatized about their place in the world,about what was going on in the country.It was the time of the Vietnam War.It was a time when many Americanshad lost faith in their government.They had lost faith that the American way wasgoing to be the way of the world.

    • 38:35

      KEAY DAVIDSON [continued]: It was really, in many ways, a very depressing timeto be an American.And Carl Sagan was one of those peoplewho believed there was no reason to be depressed because hebelieved that we were entering into our a great new ageof exploration.In which we would survey the cosmos as the great explorershad explored the oceans of the Earth.We would discover worlds out there

    • 38:57

      KEAY DAVIDSON [continued]: that would show that the universe was nota hostile place.It was not an indifferent place.What Carl Sagan gave us was a universethat had all the meaning of a religious realm,but had no gods.And the only gods were human beingsor their extraterrestrial counterparts.That's the kind of universe he wanted to give us.

    • 39:19

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: In their attemptto communicate with life on other planets,Sagan and Drake had been determinedto make the plaque a scientific message, an exact diagram.Their next task, showing what we look like,should have been the easy part.But it proved to be far more contentiousthan they'd expected.The Plaque was meant to communicate information

    • 39:41

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: about life on Earth to extraterrestrial intelligencethat didn't know about humans and their ethnic diversity.But for me, the figures are very Western in their ethnicity.And also, the body language of the woman is very telling.The man is looking outwards towards the universe,while the woman's head is tilted,looking towards the man.

    • 40:02

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: She's almost secondary, quite deferential.They wanted the figures to be representative, scientific.But did they also want them to be political?The person given the task of depicting the human formto outer space was Sagan's wife.

    • 40:22

      LINDA SAGAN: I had some general art books that I hadfrom when I was in art school.And I flipped through them, and there were the Greek statues.And I thought, well, they really cared about proportion.I wanted to give the best proportions I could do.

    • 40:43

      LINDA SAGAN [continued]: And that was the inspiration.I wanted each figure to have different racial features.The woman has very almond eyes and straight hair.And I made the man's hair curly.I made his nose kind of flattened

    • 41:04

      LINDA SAGAN [continued]: so that they were multicultural, that theyhad different human characteristics.

    • 41:11

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: What about clothes?Was there any question of them wearing clothes?

    • 41:15

      LINDA SAGAN: How do you dress them?Do you dress them in tribal costumes?Do you dress them in haute couture?What do you do with them?No, naked, I think, was the way we decided to go.

    • 41:33

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: The beauty of the design of the diagramlay in its precise maths and science.But for Linda, that presented a problem.She had to decide how much anatomical detail to include.This may have been the free and easy 1970s,but mainstream America was still prudishwhen it came to drawings of naked women.

    • 41:56

      LINDA SAGAN: A lot of the statuesthat I had been looking at, they didn't have very specific womengenitalia.So I was torn.There were only so many days, I think like five days,until the plaque could be put on the spacecraft.And Carl, he said, don't do anything

    • 42:20

      LINDA SAGAN [continued]: because we don't want to get into a big fight with NASAand give anybody an excuse not to putthe plaque on the spacecraft.

    • 42:32

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: Linda went along with her husband's viewand didn't include female genitalia in the diagram.But controversy didn't end there.As news of the plaque spread, questionswere raised about why the female figure appeared submissiveto the male.Why had the male been given the job of greeting the universe?

    • 42:52

      LINDA SAGAN: Feminism was just beginningto be a big, talked about topic.And a lot of women said, well, whyweren't we greeting the universe?Why didn't we have our hand raised?And the problem was if you both had your hand raised,the extraterrestrials would think that everybody on Earthwalked around with their hands like this.

    • 43:13

      LINDA SAGAN [continued]: So there was that kind of consideration.

    • 43:18

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: The clock was now ticking down to lift off.And public reaction to the plaque was gathering momentum.With less than a week to go, it was national news.But it was not at all clear how Americans felt.Would they support the plaque, or might there

    • 43:39

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: be a public outcry?This is article that was written in The New YorkTimes on February the 27th, 1972.It's written by the late Walter Sullivan, whowas a very eminent science writer for The New York Times.

    • 43:59

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: He has some lovely descriptions in here.He says, the Pioneer probe will sail indefinitelythrough the vast reaches of the Milky Way galaxy.And he also tries to describe someof the science on the plaque.He has a go at the pulsar map.And he says, the rate could be used to identify each pulsar,much as each lighthouse has its characteristic rhythm.

    • 44:21

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: So on the one hand, there was a great dealof excitement about a serious attemptto communicate with life in outer space.But on the other, there was a bitof a credibility gap between the creators of the pioneerplaque and the public, for whom extraterrestrial intelligenceand aliens seemed a little bit whimsical.

    • 44:41

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: And as launch day approached, therewere still some critics who wantedto stop the plaque because they sawthe naked figures as a form of pornography.The issue just wouldn't go away.Even the government was nervous.

    • 44:54

      FRANK DRAKE: NASA was very sensitive to thisbecause there were some members of Congress,in the American Congress, who were very conservative.And they were offended that the taxpayers' money wasbeing used to send smut to space.To them, this was smut.I had the personal experience of discussing thison a national morning television show in Canada.

    • 45:15

      FRANK DRAKE [continued]: And when I was through describing it, I looked around.And everybody in the room was horrified.I said, what's wrong?They said, oh, we're all going to be fired.We're going to lose our jobs.This is the first time a naked human has everbeen shown on Canadian television.And that's forbidden!

    • 45:35

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: You broadcast it to the whole of space.

    • 45:37

      FRANK DRAKE: All of space, and all of Canada!

    • 45:43

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: While debates continued,the probe took off from Florida with the plaque firmly attachedand began its long journey through the dark acresof space.It quickly became the first spacecraftto travel through the asteroid belt.And, in December, 1973, ahead of time,it reached Jupiter and immediately sent back

    • 46:06

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: magnificent color photos of the planet's surface.And then, on it went, catapulted by Jupiter'sgravitational field into outer galactic space.By the summer of 1983, the Pioneer Plaquehad passed the orbits of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus,

    • 46:28

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: Neptune, and Pluto.On the 13th of June, it reached the ultimate frontier,the edge of our solar system.And then, it went beyond.Pioneer 10 sent back its final farewell messageon the 22nd of January, 2003.And it's never been heard from again.

    • 46:54

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: Throughout the 1970s, Sagan and Drakedevised messages for outer space.The Pioneer Plaque revealed just how difficultit was to capture the variety of human life in one diagram.So in 1977, they developed a more complex messagecalled the Voyager Golden Record.

    • 47:15

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: The record went one step further than a diagramand featured greetings in 55 languages,12 minutes of Earth sounds, such as a human heartbeatand falling rain, music by Brahms and Chuck Berry.And instead of naked humans, NASAaccepted the picture of a pregnant woman.

    • 47:38

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: We don't, of course, know whether the Pioneer Plaquehas been seen by any extraterrestrials.If it has, they haven't replied.But for Frank Drake, the purpose and importanceof the original diagram is undiminished.

    • 47:54

      FRANK DRAKE: Both the Plaque and the Voyager Recordare going to outlast the Earth.In four billion years, our sun isgoing to grow, become a super giant, and swallow up the Earthand destroy everything we know.The Plaque will still be there to show that once upon a time,

    • 48:16

      FRANK DRAKE [continued]: there was a civilization like oursout there in the Milky Way.

    • 48:22

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY: The Pioneer Plaquewas a fascinating attempt to express as simplyas possible the position of the Earthand the appearance of its inhabitants.In some sense, it was trying to be the ultimate diagram,conveying complicated ideas in a way that words could never do.But it's based on a big assumption,that mathematics and drawing are not

    • 48:42

      MARCUS DU SAUTOY [continued]: just an international language, but a universal one.Whether or not that is true, only the confluenceof time and space will tell.[MUSIC PLAYING]

Copernicus and Pioneer Plaque

View Segments Segment :


Nicolaus Copernicus’ 1543 diagram revealed the concept of a sun-centric universe. In 1972, a plaque was put aboard the unmanned Pioneer space probe to communicate fundamental facts about Earth—who we are and where we are located in space—to life on other planets.

Copernicus and Pioneer Plaque

Nicolaus Copernicus’ 1543 diagram revealed the concept of a sun-centric universe. In 1972, a plaque was put aboard the unmanned Pioneer space probe to communicate fundamental facts about Earth—who we are and where we are located in space—to life on other planets.

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