Ben Bova: Ben Bova ... Sizing up science behind us and ahead

The Roman god Janus was the god of transitions, of endings and beginnings, of gates, doorways and time. He was usually portrayed as having two faces, one that looked forward, the other backward.

Our month of January is named after him.

So, in the spirit of Janus, on this first day of the New Year I'd like to look back at 2011 and forward into 2012.

This will be a very selective look at merely a few of the events that interest me the most. I trust they will interest you, as well.

The 30-year career of NASA's space shuttle ended in 2011. Many space enthusiasts fear this means the end of NASA and the American space program. Not so. Starting this year private companies will begin ferrying cargo and eventually people to and from the International Space Station.

Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, and aircraft designer Burt Rutan are developing a huge plane that will carry spacecraft to high altitude and then launch them into space, replacing the need for booster rockets and launchpads.

George Neld, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration (not a "space cadet"), said recently: "In the past, there have been four or five shuttle launches in a good year, but we're going to see hundreds every year."

It isn't over. It's just beginning.

nnn

In the year just past, physicists were stumped when an experiment at the European CERN facility seemed to produce neutrinos that move faster than light. Since Einstein's special theory of relativity, in 1905, the speed of light has been regarded as the universe's absolute speed limit.

In 2012 other physics facilities will try to duplicate the CERN experiment and see if they get faster-than-light neutrinos. If the CERN results are real, it opens the possibility of time travel, and the curious situation where cause may follow effect, instead of precede it.

This has led to a rarity: a joke invented by physicists. Keeping in mind the cause-and-effect upheaval, the joke reads:

First paragraph: "So the bartender says, 'We don't allow any faster-than-light neutrinos in here.'"

Second paragraph: "A couple of faster-than-light neutrinos walk into a bar "

Among physicists, that's a thigh slapper.

nnn

The year 2011 was marked by gridlock in Washington, while the national debt continued to soar and unemployment remained at unacceptable high levels. In the coming year this deadlock will only get more serious, as the politicians jockey for votes in next November's election.

As Mayor Daley of Chicago said, "Vote early and often."

n n n

The year 2011 was remarkable because the world didn't end. Twice.

Harold Camping, founder of the Family Radio Network, predicted that the "rapture" marking the end of the world would come at 6 p.m. May 21, 2011. Some believers prepared to meet their Maker.

But despite the admirably specific forecast, nothing happened. The world rolled right along.

Camping admitted to a mistake. The end of the world would occur on October 21. Again, people got ready for the End. Again, nothing happened.

But wait! There's more. The ancient Mayan calendar predicts the world will end on December 21, 2012. The Mayans, who built an impressive civilization in the Yucatán region of Mexico and northern Central America, were impressive astronomers and mathematicians. Before their civilization collapsed in the sixteenth century, they built fine cities and monumental temples.

Their calendar was more accurate than European calendars of the time. And their calendar stops at December 21, 2012.

Is this truly a prediction of the end of the world, or did they simply run out of stone? We'll find out December 22.

Meanwhile, some stones in space could cause us real trouble.

On June 21, 2011, asteroid 2011 MD zipped to within 7500 miles of Earth, much closer than our Moon, which is about 240,000 miles away. The size of a school bus, if it had hit the ground it could have created a local disaster.

But it didn't.

In 2012, the asteroid Apophis will come to within 22,000 miles of us. Some 300 feet wide, if it hits Earth it would strike with the force of a hydrogen bomb.

But it won't. Not until 2036, if current calculations are right.

Happy New Year!

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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