I’m certain you all have seen this late 20th century cultural icon dozens of times by now, but not all of you might be familiar with the controversy involved with it, unless you have read Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Connection. So, did you know…?
Letters to the editor about Pioneer 10 Plaque and Controversy
"One letter complained about sending pornography into space, a follow up letter made fun of the ignorance. Carl Sagan laments the failure of the plaque designers to make the two figures ethnically ambiguous.
What sexuality there is in the message also drew epistolary fire. The Los Angeles Times published a letter from an irate reader that went:
I must say I was shocked by the blatant display of both male and female sex organs on the front page of the Times. Surely this type of sexual exploitation is below the standards our community has come to expect from the Times. Isn’t it enough that we must tolerate the bombardment of pornography through the media of film and smut magazines? Isn’t it bad enough that our own space agency officials have found it necessary to spread this filth even beyond our own solar system?
This was followed several days later by another letter in the Times:
I certainly agree with those people who are protesting our sending those dirty pictures of naked people out into space. I think the way it should have been done would have been to visually bleep out the reproductive organs of the drawings of the man and the woman. Next to them should have been a picture of a stork carrying a little bundle from heaven. Then if we really want our celestial neighbors to know how far we have progressed intellectually, we should have included pictures of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy.
The New York Daily News headlined the story in typical fashion: “Nudes and Map tell about Earth to Other Worlds.”
An article in Catholic Review criticizes the plaque because it “includes everything but God,” and suggests that, rather than a pair of human beings, it would have been better to have borne a sketch of a pair of praying hands.
Another correspondent maintains that the perspective conventions are insuperably difficult, and urges us to send the complete cadavers of a man and a woman. They would be perfectly preserved in the cold of space, and could be examined by extraterrestrials in detail. We declined on grounds of excess weight.
The front page of the Berkeley, California, Barb, apparently intending to convey an impression that the man and woman on the message were too straight, reproduced them with the caption,
“Hello. We’re from Orange County.”
This comment touches on an aspect of the representation of the man and woman that I personally feel much worse about, although it has received almost no other public notice. In the original sketches from which the engravings were made, we made a conscious attempt to have the man and woman panracial. The woman was given epicanthian folds and in other ways a partially Asian appearance. The man was given a broad nose, thick lips, and a short “Afro” haircut. Caucasian features were also present in both. We had hoped to represent at least three of the major races of mankind. The epicanthian folds, the lips, and the nose have survived into the final engraving. But because the woman’s hair is drawn only in outline, it appears to many viewers as blond, thereby destroying the possibility of a significant contribution from an Asian gene pool. Also, somewhere in the transcription from the original sketch drawing to the final engraving the Afro was transmuted into a very non-African Mediterranean-curly haircut. Nevertheless, the man and woman on the plaque are, to a significant degree, representative of the sexes and races of mankind.”
Source Material: Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Connection