Why We Should Reach Out When We’re Lonely—Even If No One Answers
On Golden Records, Space Probes, and Kristen Radtke’s Seek You
Voyager 2 launched on August 20, 1977, sixteen days before Voyager 1. The little brother went first. But Voyager 1 went faster. It overtook Voyager 2 a few months later. In the 1980s it overtook Pioneer 11. On February 17, 1998, it overtook Pioneer 10. From that day forward, it’s been the most distant human-made object from Earth, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future. The two Voyagers were only able to reach escape velocity with the help of multiple gravity assists made possible by an alignment of planets that only happens every 176 years. Even the New Horizons probe, launched almost four decades later in 2006, will never overtake them. They will always be the farthest away.
Kristen Radke’s graphic essay collection, Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, is interested in whether time and progress have made our lives lonelier. She begins by describing her stern and rigid father, and not learning until she was in her twenties that he’d spent the evenings of his youth putting out CQ calls—essentially an “anybody out there?”—on a ham radio, linking up, if in a vague, formalized way, with other radio hobbyists around the globe. “My uncle’s story was the first time I had access to my dad’s need for anything other than order. I’d seen no evidence of desire beyond it–I’d never thought that he’d have looked for, of all things, connection.”
There’s a certain age before which it’s common to broadcast one’s loneliness, and after which people are more inclined to hide it. Seek You contains stories of people destroyed by private loneliness, like the primate researcher Harry Harlow, who conducted abjectly cruel studies on the effects of isolation in monkeys even as his own feelings of isolation drove him into depressive alcoholism. There are sketches of middle-aged and older people silently sharing space in bars or cafes for the sake of proximity, presumably unable to speak of the feelings that trap them. Looking at the people in these sketches, I see them feeling like their lives are too small, and they are ashamed to speak of it.
But a younger kind of loneliness wants to send signals out into the world. Radke writes of spending the late ‘90s in early internet chatrooms. I remember doing the same, reaching out to strangers because my life felt small but the world felt too large not to contain people for me. I had friend trouble through all my school years, feeling like an outsider in one group after another, moving on when it was clear I was inserting myself where I wasn’t wanted. By my senior year of high school, tired of the constant shuffling, I gave up on the exercise. Instead, I spent my lunch and recess periods camped out by the wall of the drama classroom by myself, reading books or cycling albums from a chunky CD wallet through my Discman. I learned to be alone.
But it was an exercise in conspicuous solitude. Campus was full of places I could have secluded myself, but the drama room at the end of the main quad, directly facing the school amphitheater where big crowds ate lunch. There were more visible spots I could have chosen, but not many. I might as well have been holding up a sign that said Look at me being alone on the front, and Look at me longing on the back. A group of girls who regularly transited the path in front of me nicknamed me, not unkindly, Wallboy, and I liked it. I liked being the Wallboy. Wallboy was somebody to be. It was Wallboy or nothing.
The two Voyager probes did an enormous amount of work exploring our solar system. As they investigated the outer planets of the solar system, filling in blanks about them, confirming or correcting hypotheses about their surfaces and atmospheres, they also turned them from distant blobs in grainy telescope photos to the close-up planetary images many of us saw in our textbooks. Grand-Canyon-hued ripples across Jupiter’s atmosphere. The striated bands of Saturn’s rings. Uranus’s marble a cool blue-green and Neptune’s a rich oceanic blue. Pluto, and the dozens of mysterious outer planet moons. It transmitted these findings and pictures across enormous distances, its signals arriving to Earth weak but not too weak to be heard by the radio telescopes we had listening for them.
What the two probes are most famous for, though, is distinct from its scientific mission. Only five artificial objects have achieved escape velocity from the solar system, the two Voyager probes, 2006’s New Horizons, and the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 probes from the early 1970s. Everything else will end up in stable orbit or crash into something else in the solar system or fall into the sun, but these probes will voyage out into wider space indefinitely.
Getting a spacecraft out of the sun’s grasp is no easy feat, and when we manage it, we tend to think about the possibility of it meeting someone on its near-infinite voyage through the galaxy and the first things we might say to them. Plaques on the two Pioneer probes display drawings of a nude male and female, as well as diagrams of a hydrogen atom, the solar system, and our galactic location relative to certain pulsars. The New Horizons has mostly a jumble of American coins and stamps. But each of the Voyagers contains a Golden Record.
The Golden Records are actual working records, sent with a stylus and instructions for playback. They contain greetings in fifty-five languages, including one from Carl Sagan’s son Nick when he was six years old: “Hello from the children of planet Earth.” They contain coded pictures of humans sprinting and drinking water and eating ice cream. They contain ninety minutes of music, from Chuck Berry to Bach to panpipe and bagpipe songs. They contain whalesong and brainwaves and the sound of a kiss. The mix of the messages says something about us beyond the DNA illustrations and molecular diagrams. It says something about our collective psyche, our mixture of hope and longing, to any extraterrestrials who encounter it. After all, we performed the quintessential act of longing. We made them a mix tape.
My father was a ham radio geek too. In his high school years, he too would sit at his radio and put out CQ calls. I asked him recently what came to mind when I said the letters CQ, and he immediately drew the Morse code for the letters on his restaurant napkin. But when I asked if he’d been trying to forge a connection with distant strangers out of loneliness, he said no. He and his friends just like learning the mechanics of radio transmission and pushing the limits of their technological capabilities. Some days, he said, you couldn’t transmit across the neighborhood, but during certain sunspot cycles, you could reach Australia.
Like Radke, I grew up with a modem screech opening a door to the public internet, where I sought connection in chat rooms and message boards. The vulnerabilities I spilled to strangers were nothing I would have ever shared with anyone at school, but the vast distances across which we communicating allowed me to dream of finding a clear signal from some other soul in the world, uninterrupted by the static of small towns and schools, free from the stifling contexts in which schoolchildren entomb each other.
What I got was closer to the utilitarian CQ connection ham radio operators conduct. AOL’s more charged CQ equivalent: A/S/L? Age? Sex? Location? Rather than soulmates or lifelong friends, I got serial conversations with funky-screennamed strangers that lasted until my mom or brother needed the phone line. Garfieldisrad1994 or SmashingPumpkins007 listened to my pain for a while. But that was enough. That was a salve. None of those people remember me now, and I don’t remember them, but what was important was the ability to transmit, to say what I needed to say into the void with the knowledge that someone else was in there with me.
“When we call out across an air wave or a telephone or a chatroom or an app or a city street or an open field or our bedroom,” Radtke writes, “I want each of us to hear, miraculously, a voice calling back.” Our miraculous age offers an infinite buffet of communications channels. Our tragic age engenders as much loneliness as ever. But I suspect a certain amount of loneliness has been as constant a human companion as the dog. We longed for the stars millennia ago and we long for them today.
My dad tells me about a spark gap radio he built as a kid whose signal, made by an exposed high voltage electrical arc, sent all the neighborhood TVs and radios into a fritz. I think my teenage loneliness was like that. Desperate. Wild. Ready to overpower the world around me. I’m no longer a high schooler. I’m a middle-aged dad with a happy marriage and two wonderful kids. But some kernel of that loneliness has remained, not as a cancer but as a friend. I like movies and shows that reflect it back at me. I like songs that wash it back over me. I think of a tree that has grown around a metal stake such that the stake now bears some of its weight.
Longing is the ferment of loneliness, the wine that comes from letting it age properly. It’s the bitters in the cocktail, the acid in the marinade, a reason to look up at the stars and make a wish, and it can be the source of wonders. Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, who worked on the Voyager imaging team, describes the feeling beautifully in the PBS documentary The Farthest: “All planetary exploration to me is a story about longing. It’s a longing to know ourselves. It’s a longing to understand the significance of our own existence. It’s a longing to communicate, to say to the universe ‘We’re here. Know us. Where are you?’”
From an unromantic perspective, the odds of the golden records being found and played are infinitesimal. It will be tens of thousands of years before they come even fleetingly close to other stars, and millions or billions of years before they make any closer approaches, if interstellar obstacles don’t destroy them first. On that timescale, their trajectories could be changed by stars that have not yet been born.
Meanwhile, the power sources of both Voyagers will run out in the next few years, meaning they’ll be nothing but cold hunks of metal, oddly shaped asteroids drifting in the dark with nothing emanating from them to draw some extraterrestrial viewer’s attention. No radio signal. No lighthouse. No CQ call. Just their inert metal disks with what we hope is the best of humanity, a message in a bottle in an ocean the size of the galaxy.What was important was the ability to transmit, to say what I needed to say into the void with the knowledge that someone else was in there with me.
But it matters to have them out there, because they have been found by someone. Two of them float ever farther out of reach but we have our recordings of their contents here, where they’re discovered by new people all the time.. And yes, we made them, but I was not alive when they were made and I have found them. I have listened to the golden record, and in the age of the internet, any lonely, voyaging heart can find them and listen to all they contain.
In The Farthest, Nick Sagan talks about his “Hello from the children of planet Earth” message on the golden record, and says with no small amount of wonder: “There is some piece of me that is a traveler on that ship. It’s just gone, it’s just going. It continues to go. It’s going to keep going. When I’m long gone, it’ll keep going, and it’s like a little piece of magic.”
It is. And like any display of magic, the magician performs the trick but it’s the audience who supplies the wonder. As much of an insult as it is to say someone loves to hear themself talk, on some level hearing oneself talk is a basic human need. Radtke writes about “skin hunger,” a psychological effect that makes us crave some modicum of human touch, even if it’s only the accidental brushes against strangers on the subway. I think there is also a voice hunger. We need to be able to say: I’m here. Know me. Where are you?
That’s what I needed to say in late night chat rooms. That’s why I sat alone where everyone could see me instead of where no one could. That may be what Radtke’s father needed from his CQ calls. That’s why we spent precious weight allowance on the Voyager probes for recordings of our own voices.
Because those golden records are voyaging out there in space they’re voyaging down here at the same time. When we listen to them, we hear ourselves singing to someone else, calling out with the dream of hearing something back.
Sometimes, the voice calling miraculously back is an echo.
Sometimes, that’s enough.
Singer Distance by Ethan Chatagnier is available from Tin House.