Quote Origin: All of Bach, Streamed Out Into Space, Over and Over Again. We Would Be Bragging

Carl Sagan? Lewis Thomas? Douglas Adams? Stephen Fry? Anonymous?

Cover of the Voyager Golden Record (Public domain NASA/JPL)

Question for Quote Investigator: Suppose humanity decided to deliberately send a message out into space. What should be included in that message which might someday be read by a hypothetical alien civilization?  

In fact, the U.S. launched two robotic interstellar probes in 1977, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Mission planners decided to include a golden phonograph record containing pictures and sounds of Earth. Apparently, one person contemplating this topic said something like the following. Here are two versions:

(1) We should send recordings of Bach, but we would just be showing off.
(2) I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach, but that would be boasting.

This notion has been attributed to astronomer Carl Sagan, essayist Lewis Thomas, science fiction author Douglas Adams, and comedian Stephen Fry. Would you please help me to determine the correct phrasing and the identity of the commentator?

Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1974 physician Lewis Thomas published a collection of essays titled “The Lives of a Cell”. One piece discussed the “First International Conference on Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence” which had been held in 1972. Astronomers who attended considered the use of electromagnetic signals for communicating with possible civilizations throughout space. Lewis believed that other lifeforms would probably be more than a hundred light years away. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

Whatever information we provide must still make sense to us two centuries later, and must still seem important, or the conversation will be an embarrassment to all concerned. In two hundred years it is, as we have found, easy to lose the thread.

Perhaps the safest thing to do at the outset, if technology permits, is to send music. This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable for us to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1978 Carl Sagan et al published the book “Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record” which discussed the contents of the golden records affixed to the two Voyager spacecraft. The records included selections from Bach’s musical works. Here is a passage from the book:2

Perhaps there is a “universal” music. In addition, I was cheered by an earlier remark of the biologist Lewis Thomas, president of the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York City. When asked what message he would send to other civilizations in space, Thomas replied with words to this effect: “I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach.” “But that,” he added as an aside, “would be boasting.”

Thus, the book co-authored by Sagan attributed an altered version of the quotation to Lewis Thomas. Sagan did not take credit for the remark.

When Sagan died in 1996 the “Independent” newspaper of London published an obituary containing the following:3

In 1977, he became the driving force behind a project to prepare a disk of recorded material for attachment to each of the two Voyager spacecraft due to reach interstellar space following their exploration of the outer solar system.

The project, detailed in the book Murmurs of Earth (1978), provided an opportunity to convey the essence of our own civilisation to others. As well as 118 photographs and greetings in almost 60 languages, the disk contained 90 minutes of music selected from around the world encompassing many cultures and traditions (“I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach,” remarked a biologist, “but that would be boasting”.)

In 1999 Douglas Adams published in “The Guardian” newspaper of London a musical review of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos 1-4:4

Now, whenever I hear it, it stays in my mind for days, re-triggered by sunlight on trees, motorway traffic, rising smoke, the interplay of light and landscape seen from an aeroplane window, or the eruption of laughter as a child runs into your arms. While Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven, and Mozart tells you what it’s like to be Mozart, Bach tells you what it’s like to be the universe.

In 2004 Stephen Fry hosted an episode of the BBC television comedy panel show QI (Quite Interesting). This wonderful show is unrelated to this website. During the episode Fry referred to Bach and the audio message sent with the Voyager spacecraft. Fry credited Sagan with an instance of the saying under examination:5

Carl Sagan said “I think that would just be showing off.”

In 2007 a post appeared in Trumpet Herald Forum, a social media group for trumpet players. The post credited Douglas Adams with an instance of the saying under examination:6

Douglas Adams (creator of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) once said that when they were deciding what music to put on the Voyager spacecraft, they should not have put any Bach on it – it was just showing off.

In conclusion, Lewis Thomas deserves credit for the passage he wrote in the 1974 essay. Carl Sagan’s 1978 book “Murmurs of Earth” mentioned a paraphrase of Thomas’s remark. Sagan should not receive credit for the remark. Douglas Adams praised the music of Bach, but he did not make the statement under examination. Stephen Fry mistakenly attributed an instance to Sagan.

Image Notes: Public domain picture of the cover of the Voyager Golden Record. Image provided by NASA/JPL. The image has been resized. Acknowledgments: Great thanks to Simon Koppel whose x-tweet notified QI about this topic which led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to Chris Coates whose thread on x-twitter pointed to crucial sources including “The Lives of a Cell”, “Murmurs of Earth”, and the QI panel show.

  1. 1974, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas, Chapter: Ceti, Quote Page 45,  The Viking Press, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  2. 1978, Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record by Carl Sagan, F. D. Drake, Ann Druyan, Timothy Ferris, Jon Lomberg, and Linda Salzman Sagan, Chapter 1: For Future Times and Beings by Carl Sagan, Quote Page 13, Random House, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  3. Website: Independent newspaper, Article title: OBITUARY : Professor Carl Sagan, Article author: Carl Murray, Date on website: December 21, 1996, Website description: Independent newspaper is based in London. (Accessed independent.co.uk on March 10, 2024) link ↩︎
  4. 1999 February 12, The Guardian, Section: Friday Review – Music, Douglas Adams on Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos 1-4, Quote Page 15, Column 5, London, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  5. YouTube video, Title: BEST OF QI Series B! Hilarious And Interesting Rounds!, Uploaded on January 20, 2024, Uploaded by: Versus: Versus Is The Home Of The Best Panel Show Moments!, Quotation spoken by Stephen Fry, (Quotation starts at 58 minutes 57 seconds of 1 hour 11 minutes 21 seconds) Note: This video excerpt is from an episode of QI Series B; broadcast in 2004. (Accessed on youtube.com on March 10, 2024) link ↩︎
  6. Website: Trumpet Herald Forum, Forum Topic: Everyone should play Bach!, Timestamp of posting: Feb 25, 2007 12:18 am, Handle of poster: trumpetmike, Website description: “The Trumpet Herald strives to bring trumpet performers of all ages and skill levels together in a meaningful and constructive way”. (Accessed trumpetherald.com on March 12, 2024) link ↩︎
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