Last time I couldn't belive it was March. Today I can't believe it's almost mid-May and two more months have passed. But it's true: time flies when you're having fun.
In this case, the fun has been teaching introductory anthropology to an interesting (and, for the most part, interested) group of community college students, many of whom somehow manage to juggle school, working part- or full-time, difficult home situations, legal issues, and illness, not to mention perpetual car trouble.
Yanomami girl, Brazil. Photography by Victor Englebert. Source: http://neuroanthropology.net/.
I've thoroughly enjoyed my re-entry into teaching and value this experience even more than I thought I would when I began in January. The semester ends next week and even though I'm still knee-deep in assignments to grade before Thursday's final exam, I know I've learned a lot, too. All in all, I've seen a very good return on my investment of one shot-in-the-dark job application and a belief that even dated prior experience still matters.
Other kinds of belief have been in the news lately, too. On May 2 the Christian Science Monitor picked-up a story posted on Space.com about a London tabloid's recent headline proclaiming that NASA had found "compelling evidence" of life on Mars. According to The Sun, the Martian rovers Spirit and Discovery had both found "pond scum" during forrays across the planet's surface, calling the slimy mess "the building blocks of life as we know it."
This was reported with great fanfare on April 28 (the article has since been removed) and NASA quickly responded with strong disclaimers. "The headline is extremely misleading," spokesperson Dwayne Brown told the Monitor. "This makes it sound like we announced that we found life on Mars, and that is absolutely, positively false."
So what did NASA announce, and when did it announce it?
Of course, there was no proclamation about discovering life on Mars, but Steven Squyres, principal investigator of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission did speak with a group of reporters from a NASA teleconference held April 28 on the status of the agency's astrobiology research program. "I can only assume that the Sun reporter misunderstood," said Squyres. "What Spirit and Opportunity have found is sulfate minerals . . . not organic materials, not pond scum, and not the building blocks of life as we know it."
So there. Sulfate minerals, even in the presence of water, do not a cookbook make.
Interestingly, within days of NASA's scramble to correct and clarify the first episode of a new Discovery Channel series featuring cosmologist Steven Hawking aired, in which he speculates about alien life forms. I haven't seen the program yet (the series is being repeated several times), but news wires understandably grabbed hold of Hawking's statements that alien life likely exists, that communicating with aliens could be a threat to Earth, and that an alien life form visiting the Earth might be similar in outcome to that of Columbus' arrival in the Americas.
Christopher Columbus arrives in the Americas, painting by John Vanderlyn (1775-1852). Source: Wikimedia Commons
"If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans," Hawking said. "We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet."
The anthropologist in me appreciates the thought.
And, after a semester of focusing on what anthropological perspectives can offer even casual observers of the human condition, I think my students would, too.