an anecdote about the Pioneer plaque
In his links post that came out today, Scott Alexander writes:
Carl Sagan married three times. His first wife was legendary biologist Lynn Margulis, who discovered mitochondrial endosymbiosis, then went off the deep end and became an AIDS denialist and 9/11 truther. His second wife was the woman who designed the Pioneer plaque. His third wife was one of the women who designed the Voyager golden record.
This reminded me of a fascinating anecdote about the design of the plaque and some of the criticism it received. From Sagan’s 1975 book Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective (emphasis mine):
But there were also critical comments. They were not directed at the pulsar map, which was the scientific heart of the message, but rather at the representation of the man and the woman. The original drawings of this couple were made by my wife and were based upon the classical models of Greek sculpture and the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. They are not shown holding hands lest the extraterrestrial recipients believe that the couple is one organism joined at the fingertips. (In the absence of indigenous horses, both the Aztecs and the Incas interpreted the mounted conquistador as one animal – a kind of two-headed centaur.) The man and woman are not shown in precisely the same position or carriage so that the suppleness of the limbs could be communicated – although we well understand that the conventions of perspective and line drawing popular on Earth may not be readily apparent to civilizations with other artistic conventions.
The man's right hand is raised in what I once read in an anthropology book is a "universal" sign of good will – although any literal universality is of course unlikely. At least the greeting displays our opposable thumbs. Only one of the two people is shown with hand raised in greeting, lest the recipients deduce erroneously that one of our arms is bent permanently at the elbow.
Several women correspondents complain that the woman appears too passive. One writes that she also wishes to greet the universe, with both arms outstretched in womanly salutation.
I met Lynn Margolis, many years ago when I was a much younger cat.
I probably didn't come off well, mainly because I was reacting to the way her discoveries were misused for political purposes, while feral cats tend to take a pretty darwinist view of life.
I am imagining a more inclusive design where the woman is larger to show that we foreground marginalized groups, a different color to show our value of diversity, with shorter hair so that they don't think we endorse conformity to stereotypes, and maybe with a penis to support Trans rights. I am imagining how embarrassed I would be for aliens to find that and realize how sunk we are in the very limited cultural mileiu of our own times and unable to grasp anything timeless or transcendant. So obsessed with our differences, trivial shallow differences that we can't communicate the basic facts of our shared humanity. They would take it as a sign that we were infants mentally, combined with a pulsar map to show that we have more understanding of the cosmos than we do ourselves or our neighbor. And then I imagine them discovering that someone with so little emotional maturity had nuclear weapons and sending Klaatu over to have a talk with us.