Happy End-of-2012! And Welcome 4th Era?
27 December 2012

by tmartin on December 27, 2012

IT TURNS OUT THE WORLD DID NOT END on December 21 — although the 3-mile wide asteroid Toutais  (http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2012/12dec_toutatis/)) did pass alarmingly close on December 12. Was this a case of Mayan numeric transposition coupled with sheer good luck for Earth …. or just a random coincidence? Hmm. You be the judge.

But then again, the “end” might not mean a literal ka-boom. In fact, most sane and rational scientists and Mayan experts have been saying exactly that all along. Winter solstice 2012 concludes a long cycle of 13 b’ak;’tuns on the ancient Mayan calendar, and marks the beginning of the next calendar cycle.

Discovery News, among others, presents more that you ever wanted to know about this ancient five-placeholder method of counting days, from from ki’ns to b’ak’tuns (http://news.discovery.com/history/the-real-deal-how-the-mayan-calendar-works-121219.html)

And so, as this year 2012 in the Julian calendar comes to a close, we’ve  flipped over the page on an ancient calendar as well. Which makes me think again about this end of the world notion and wonder if there’s some truth to it. Not the kaboom-kind of course, but the more subtle kind that only gets identified after the fact.

Beginnings and ending don’t happen with the flip of a switch. Hints, signs, and shifts start happening until one day we look up and blink in surprise, realizing that Things Changed Forever.

Maybe the Maya were right. Maybe for the past 4,000 years we’ve been in a “third age” and we’ve now embarked upon the fourth age.  I don’t know about you, but all through 2012 I kept finding myself noticing that we’d passed some kind of marker, made some kind of fundamental interaction-with-world shift.

Think about it. If you transported back in time to 1912 or 1712 or even 1512, the world would be different … but still the same.

If you appeared in Amsterdam in 1512, you’d find books that look like books and could figure out how to access the information within (http://www.beloit.edu/nuremberg/inside/about/tour.htm).

If you landed in 1712 Boston, you could look at a map and find your way around the already-winding streets. (http://web.mit.edu/dusp/cdd/www_11945/11.945_www_maps/map-1700.jpg)

If you found yourself in a classroom in 1912, you’d already know the basic rules and structure, even if the school had only one room and you studied recitation and penmanship. (http://reunion.colfaxwisconsin.com/images/2nd-grade-classroom-1912.jpg)

For hundreds of years, the details keep changing and things moved faster or got more automated, but the fundamentals and the basic way we interact with each other and the world around us has remained essentially the same.

Until recently.

Classic science fiction writer Frederik Pohl wrote a series of books about the discovery of the remains of an ancient race called the Heechee. Humans find piles upon piles of something they dub “prayer fans” and speculate what these objects may have meant. Only – when it is almost too late, of course! – does anyone realize the collection of fans are really libraries of information.

That plotline popped out of memory when I saw one of the current videos-going-viral: “A Magazine is an Ipad that does not Work” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXV-yaFmQNk)

In it a baby has already imprinted on digital interaction. When presented with a printed magazine, she swipes and pinches and taps it. She’ll learn the page paradigm — eventually. But it isn’t her primary connection to information.

She’s not alone. It seems every new parent has been marveling over how their amazingly brilliant toddler knows how to use a tablet … and posting the proof on YouTube.  In 2012, Baby-taps-first-App snuggles right up there with Baby-Says-First-Word in new-parent land. In case you somehow missed it, here’s just a couple of the seemly endless parade of this genre:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3tam2Pwyqk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVTO3rqYizw

Cat parents of 2012 agree. The number of brilliant/cute technology baby videos only slightly beats out the number of brilliant/cute technology cat videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36Jb3VhwK00

We barely blink at the amazing anymore. Consider this: our friend the Asteroid Toutais did not pass by unnoticed. Not only did we track this hunk ‘o space rock,  but the folks at NASA also fired up their spiffy new Goldstone radar in the Mojave Desert and pinged the heck out of Toutais’ extraterrestrial fly-by, creating detailed radar data images and video:

http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release=2012-397

We did not gasp in collective awe.

For much of 2012, our earthy agent Curiosity has been crawling around Mars, scoping out the scenery and performing remote science explorations and tests. Over the holidays it has been recording a 360-degree panorama of the Martian feature, Yellowknife Bay.

Postcards from Mars? Routine!

Last January, marine explorers announced an entire new hydrothermal ecosystem, complete with new species nearly 8,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, in the depths off Antarctica. (http://earthsky.org/earth/lost-world-of-creatures-at-antarctic-deep-sea-vents). We accepted it with interest.

In April, Google brought the concept of augmented reality into pop culture when it debuted a near-future vision of wearable “glasses” in its Google Glass project. Commentators had fun with it, but no one questioned that it would be real … and that we’d use it. (http://www.capeeyes.com/2012/04/googleglass/)

In July, Scientists at CERN in Switzerland announced they spotted the long hypothesized building block of the universe, the Higgs boson particle (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/dec/25/higgs-boson-discovery-extraordinarily-tense).  If the concept of discovering the source of mass isn’t mind boggling enough, the process of getting to the discovery – from building to world’s most gigantic atom smasher to actually using it with a team of 3,000 people, should make us pause and say “wow.”

It did … for about 10 seconds of media circus. By December, it was old news.

In engineering breakthroughs, IBM fabricated the first silicon nanophotonics on a single 90 nanometer chip. Translation: we produce data faster than our computer hardware can handle it. Using light instead of electrons as a communication pathway removes that barrier. The production of this concept sets us on a short path to optical computing. Seriously Wow. (http://www-03.ibm.com/press/us/en/pressrelease/39641.wss)

And, from the field of science-fiction-health, the University of Pittsburgh successfully used brain implants to enable a paralyzed woman to control a robotic arm; after just a few months of practice,  52 year old Jan Scheuermann picked up a piece of chocolate and feed herself. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-20731973)

The year 2012 became a world of 3-D entertainment. Real time connection to anyone anywhere. A place linked by a global mobile communication web.

In 2012, from the mundane to the profound, we accepted it all, with barely a blink of amazement: Attend a high school graduation in real time digitally! Pay for coffee with a tap of a personal smart device!  Visit the inner depths and the outer reaches of the world with devices that extend the human senses! Uncover the base of matter!

Maybe the Maya had it right. December 2012 is the end – and the beginning. Perhaps history will label 2012 as the year the future became the new normal.

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