One of the only things I remember from Astronomy 101 is the Drake Equation, that somewhat-laughed-at-yet-viable formula for predicting the possibility of other life forms in the universe:
Astronomy was an OK subject for me. It involved a lot of physics equations that, difficult enough alone, were even more difficult when applied to unknown entities in the sky. I spent most of the class daydreaming or, because it was a 7pm course, sleeping (which, if you know me, is a rare habit, let alone in class.) Malleable language, abstraction and hypothesis being more up my ally than strict fact, when we learned the Drake Equation as a “fun” way to wrap up the year, I was finally interested in the subject matter. Any scientist will point out that there are so many factors to the Drake Equation that we haven’t yet defined, making the entire concept fundamentally nul, but linguistically, culturally, the Drake equation appeals to me for its metaphorical interpretations.
Whenever I inform a French person that I don’t feel like my time in France is quite done, and that I would love to stay an additional year or two, I’m always greeted with a look of shock. But you feel comfortable here? You’re OK with the French mentality? You don’t think we are snobbish? You don’t think we complain too much? My answer is always yes, and no. Of course I find France too laid-back a nation; I’m American, I work on a deadline. Of course I feel uncomfortable being the only girl at the weight rack; in fact, I had never heard of girls not weight lifting before moving to France. Of course I think there’s too much complaining here, but without it, I would not receive my monthly housing aide or that occasional strike-induced day off from work. France is just another intelligent form of life on the planet. The people here are different from the ones I know at home. In many instances, I appreciate “the French way” more so than what I learned as a child; in other situations, I want to sprint across the Atlantic back to the comforts I know.
The possibility for other life forms in the universe ranges from 0 to infinity. Here on earth, however, we definitely touch upon the infinity end of the spectrum. In some cultures, burping expresses appreciation for a meal. In others, cleaning your plate shows that you’re still hungry, and greedy. In Brazil, the OK-sign is highly offensive. In California, putting your feet up on the couch is not rude, but comfortable. The Drake Equation has been parodied into many uses, from determining the amount of people who have experienced paranormal activity, to equating the probability of finding an intelligent spouse. But to these parodies I add a new, more serious suggestion:
Cultural integration is not an easy process. In fact, I’m not sure if it’s entirely possible. Whether it be language or geography, or both, there will always be nuances between people that are hard to get past. I remember walking my university’s halls with a good friend, at the time a Resident Assistant for a freshman building, and explaining the sexual jokes that should be erased from a few of the doors’ whiteboards. In France, I learn a new idiom almost every day, and my students frequently try to trip me up with inappropriate references they hope I won’t understand. I forbade my students from mentioning the town of Montcuq, which is pronounced but not spelled as “My ass”, until I finally allowed a student to show me the Wikipedia page proving its existence.
In both Argentina and France, I’ve been greeted by a surprising enthusiasm for my own nuances that actually outdoes the welcome I received as a California-bred student living in Boston. Here, I participate in French-English exchanges with some of the teachers learning English, and I brought pumpkin pie to a class discussion about favorite desserts (they did not enjoy it, but at least they tried it.) One of the teachers at school has been very helpful in pointing out organic markets, vegetarian restaurants and urban running paths for the California in me, while also lending me seventeen French DVDs and providing a list of local museums and cultural events. The most important part in attempted integration is acceptance by both parties. Globalization should not be the assimilation of one culture by many, but the assimilation of many into one. When someone does something that offends me (or makes me uncomfortable, as the Latin kiss does) I remember that the action belongs to a different culture where it is normal and expected, and I hope that others do the same for me (when I cut cars off while running, for instance, or occasionally ask for my giant plate to-go.)
The Drake Equation offers up the possibility for other lifeforms in the universe, but I wonder if it can give us some insight into ourselves. The fact that we seek other life suggests that we do not want to be alone, and the fact that we seek “intelligent life” suggests that we are presumptuous creatures (no, really, I’m only being half sarcastic here.) While we work on the variables that apply to the equation pertaining to outer space, I suggest we start first with life on earth by accepting our need for companionship and lessening our presumption of cultural barriers. With acceptance, willingness and understanding by all parties involved, we can find our home anywhere in the world, and experience adventure that explores the self and the unknown, an adventure that seeks aliens.
Update: Ira Glass has since featured this post on the Valentines Day edition of This American Life. (That’s a loose interpretation of the first story featured on the show.)