Knowledge Management Institute

KM: Lessons Learned from Pioneer 10

KM: Lessons Learned from Pioneer 10

Jul 10, 2017   |  By
Chris Holm, CKM | Director, Customer Success at Ellucian

Given the 45th anniversary to of its launch this year, what can we learn about Knowledge Management from Pioneer 10?

Over 9 million miles away from our sun, a solitary spacecraft continues its long journey into interstellar space. Scientific investigations of great value were sent to Earth until March 31st, 1997, the official end of its main mission. Exhausted of all energy, it drifts along the solar winds of space, its last signal having been detected over 13 years ago. Some say that this is when its secondary mission truly began: To act as an ambassador to cosmic civilizations. To accomplish this, a gold-anodized aluminum plaque was attached to Pioneer 10. Carl Sagan and Frank Drake designed the message, with artwork prepared by Linda Salzman Sagan. 


This is the message:

Hydrogen, considered to be the most abundant element in the universe was chosen as it is a universal phenomenon and the hyperfine transition depicted could be used as a base for measuring time and distance, thus decoding the remainder of the plaque. The array of lines and dashes to the center-left of the plaque represent pulsars, which can be used to calculate the position of the sun to the center of the milky way galaxy. They can also be used to calculate when Pioneer 10 was launched. At the bottom of the plaque the solar system is depicted with the home planet of the plaque, and Pioneer 10’s trajectory out of our solar system. 

Lastly, a drawing of a man and a woman, their height able to be calculated based on the hyperfine transition key and a silhouette of Pioneer 10. 

First, let us go over what is “wrong” in the message: 

  • The frequency of one of the pulsars is calculated incorrectly. That error was made by Sagan and Drake because the pulsar could not be calculated as precisely in the 70s as it can be now.
  • The solar system is depicted incorrectly. We now consider our solar system to have 8 planets and 5 dwarf planets. Additionally, the arrow showing Earth and Pioneer 10’s trajectory may not be understood by aliens who did not “grow up” in a hunter-gatherer society. Lastly, Saturn has a dash through it, which was meant to signify its rings. A dash, based on the plaque and binary could be misinterpreted to mean the planet does not exist anymore or that some calamity occurred. 
  • The male and female portrayed are the most debated on the plaque. The major issue back in the 70s was that both were depicted without clothing. The drawings of both were meant to depict all races but many viewed them as Caucasian. The female was also perceived as being subservient to the male.
  • Lastly, the hand raised was considered a sign of greeting but aliens could consider this to mean “stop” or anything else for that matter.  

The “right” in the message:

  • Despite the change in our understanding of what we consider a planet, 8 of the largest bodies are represented. A small version of Pioneer 10 was depicted travelling from Earth outwards so it truly was the best representation at the time for its origin (and still is).   
  • The hand raised by the male had an additional use and that was to show the opposable thumb, which many consider to be one of the largest leaps in our evolution. If the female raised her hand too, it could be depicted that we all walked around that way, for the same reason her stance was a little different from her counterpart. 
  • It was simple and concise and could be interpreted by cultures at both ends of the technical spectrum. 

What does this have to do with Knowledge Management? 

  • When writing any type of Knowledge Base Article, keep things as simple as possible as even the simplest pieces could be interpreted differently. Wording should be concise and should “stick to the facts.” Do not create an article for the sake of creating it – the article must serve a purpose. 
  • Maintenance of Knowledge. Takes steps to ensure whatever is created can be maintained by having a process to do so. A Knowledge Base Article is a living thing. 
  • Your Knowledge Base Article will be there even if you are not. Only because one person created it does not mean that person “owns” it. Knowledge is for the betterment of all and not for a select few. 
  • Your Knowledge Base Article is an Ambassador for your company. Use spelling and grammar check and most importantly be professional in your writing.
  • Technology. While it is not the main force behind Knowledge Management, we cannot discount its power, so invest in the tools proven to increase successes. When writing an article, think about how a quick video, diagram, and other multimedia may help to supplement the document. The Voyager probes contained images and recordings while the New Horizons probe went all digital. 

    About the Author:  Chris Holm, CKM is a visionary providing proven and skilled leadership with a focus on desired results and employee engagement. A futurist thinker using sound judgment and clear, concise communication to ensure all employees understand the mission and their personal ability to contribute. Strength and experience with strategic planning complete with execution strategies. 15+ years of experience using intuitive interpersonal skills to monitor and manage processes to ensure delivery on expectations with a high attention to detail, analytical orientation, and a clear understanding of technologies and their ability to support the efficiency necessary to be fiscally responsible and accountable. United States Military (Army) Combat Veteran with proven leadership capabilities.

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