Life is random, or so the Apple ads tell us these days. This marketed wisdom seemed to be born out in the unlikely path that led me from a listserv e-mail to a screen test in Hollywood to playing "The Professor" on the upcoming reality show The Real Gilligan's Island. The whole thing felt a little like winning the lottery--whether in the sense of Powerball or Shirley Jackson's short story, I'm not sure. (And let's get the shameless plug out of the way--the show premiers Wednesday, June 8, at 9 p.m. on TBS. Hold on to your coconuts indeed, my friend.)
Since word has gotten out about this adventure, a question I've gotten a lot is: "Why, professor, did you do this?" Perhaps I'm paranoid, but I can't help but imagine a subtext here that goes something like "Why in God's name would an assistant professor at Duke who is going up for tenure soon agree to be televised nationally in coconut-oriented competitions with people in feather boas and sequin dresses?"
A fair question. To be honest, shameless vanity certainly played a role. When your 15 minutes of fame knock at your door, will you be choosy? In some small sense I did get to live out the fantasy of being a movie star for a bit--makeup people for press shoots, trailers filled with producers in headphones hanging on my every word, camera crews that came running every time I cracked a coconut. And I admit the prospect of a good self-indulgent adventure loomed large. I was able to set my increasingly adult life aside for a few weeks and be a kid on a tropical island with a group of oddballs I most likely would never have shared a beer with at the airport, much less peddled their shower pumps (you'll see). And of course I hoped to bring good press (let's hope) to Duke and to my research program (interested graduate students please apply within). For the record, my chairman, Roni Avissar, and Dean Kristina Johnson have been enthusiastic throughout the whole endeavor.
But at the end of the day, what helped me justify this experience most was the potential for a brief soapbox from which to project a little environmental advocacy in a world that (for the moment) seems to have downgraded environmental protection to somewhere between Terry Schiavo and the Kentucky Derby. I imagined myself sitting by the fire with the rest of the castaways making clever analogies between island survival and scarce resources in the world at large. Call it the yin and the yang of reality TV, but my hope was that out of the mindless fun of castaway competitions might come something worthwhile, like getting a few more people to think and to take responsibility for their environmental impacts, and to vote accordingly.
Just in case such fireside expositions end up on the editing floor, I'm going to indulge myself and try again here. Today's topic: global warming. I know, I know, I'm bringing down the party, but please bear with me. Space doesn't permit anything resembling a thorough discussion of the CO2 emissions and the greenhouse effect, but suffice it to say that there is broad consensus in the scientific community that global warming is already occurring and that it is induced by man--it's time to stop debating and to take action. Please educate yourself about the issue, particularly if you are skeptical to the point that you think the risk is so low we should do nothing about it. A great place to start is the Union of Concerned Scientists Web site, www.ucsusa.org--go the Environment section.
You may now go back to your regular programming. --andrew schuler
(The writer is an assistant professor in the civil engineering school at Duke.)