World End

2012: The end of the world as we know it

Up to 21/12/2012 we have experienced some of the greatest scientific discoveries of our lives, proving that the Mayans were right all along.

Contrary to the beliefs of the mystics, hippies, druids and pagans stationed outside the ruins of Chichen Itza in Mexico (and several British tabloid papers) the Maya had no apocalyptic myths and believed the end of the cycle merely brought a time of transition. 2012 has been stamped next to three major scientific discoveries which have redefined our interpretation of life as we know it, suggesting the Mayans may have been right all along.

2012 delivered proof of the so-called ‘God Particle’ in one of the most momentous discoveries of the past century. While the physicists and mathematicians in Cern worked hard at the multi-national establishment, giant leaps in space exploration were being made across the pond at NASA, where the Voyager telescope finally broke outside our own solar system and a curious robot was landed on another planet.

These discoveries have ushered in a new age of rational thinking. Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman once remarked: “It does not make a difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.” After many centuries of guess work, it seems we have entered a new age of enlightenment.

Big bang theory

Change doesn’t come quick and fast in particle physics, it comes big and groundbreaking. The discovery of a Higgs-like particle by the Large Hadron Collider at the Organisation Europeenne pour la Recherche Nucleaire (Cern) was a groundbreaking discovery.

The researchers detected a Higgs-like particle with enough accuracy to merit it a scientific discovery. The Higgs particle gives mass to other fundamental particles, such as electrons and other quarks out of which we are made, and the detection of such a particle has reinterpreted how we as humans understand our existence.

But the scientists at Cern have created more than a reinterpretation of our creation. The centre, free from bureaucracy and state control, has shown what can be achieved when we collaborate and let our thirst for knowledge venture. It has delivered some of the most complex engineering project of the past 60 years all on time and on budget. In doing so, as a spin off, it has invented the World Wide Web and many of the technologies used in medical imaging and some cancer therapies.

Professor Brian Cox wrote in the New Statesman: “What is wonderful is that we did this together. There is a place where people put their religious, political and cultural differences aside in the name of exploring and
understanding the natural world. There is no agenda other than the advancement of our understanding.”

In 1969, the US physicist Robert R Wilson was called before a congressional commute to justify the funding of Fermilab, the US equivalent to Cern. Asked to justify the expenditure on the project, in terms of enhancing national security and the economic interests of the US, Wilson replied: “It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about.

“It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

The red planet

Curiosity – landed on Aeolis Palus in Gale Crater on Mars on August 6th 2012 – is the first time we have truly been able to observe a planet other than our own. Although it’s not the first rover to be landed on the planet, this is literally a science laboratory on wheels, and is of great importance to our future understanding of other worlds.

If the robotic laboratory is able to find life on Mars or signs of life in the past, it may tells us a great deal about the origin and evolution of life here on earth. Furthermore, these new mobile labs are paving the way for future scientists to conduct similar studies on far more distant worlds within the solar system. These developments suggest finding life on another planet could happen sooner rather than later.

The final frontier

This year Voyager 1 and 2 continued to travel further than any other man-made object in history. Launched in the summer of 1977 they have travelled over 11 billion miles with Voyager 1 becoming the first object to travel outside our own solar system.

In 1990 an image was captured of earth from six billion kilometres which became known as the pale blue dot. Of it, the astronomer Carl Sagan said: “That’s here. That’s home. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you have ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives… on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam…. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.

“To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

It’s the end of the world as we know it

Brian Cox and Robin Ince highlighted in the New Statesman that science, rational thinking and evidence-based policy are enjoying a welcomed revival, spurred by these discoveries that are redefining our interpretation of ourselves. Our children and our children’s children will be born into a world were innovation and discovery are encouraged rather than stifled, altering societal structure.

21/12/2012 may not have seen an apocalypse, but it could be interpreted as the start of a new era. Past constraints such as geographical boundaries and powerful institutions hell bent on status quo are becoming less influential as our thirst for knowledge grows.

Rational thinking leads to less conflict and divide. Advances in science mean that with each generation high child mortality rates, tuberculosis and vast slums are becoming less frequent, and a cure for cancer and AIDS has turned into a distinct possibility. A doomsday of sorts may have occurred in December, but in the parlance of REM: “it’s the end of the world as we know it, but I feel fine.”

By Jack Peat

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