2012: A promising year for discovery and innovation

Earlier this year, after I had made an author presentation at Wellington Middle School, a student asked, “So you don’t think the world is going to end in 2012?”

She had seen the 2009 disaster movie, “2012,” that tried to hype movie viewers into end-of-the-world angst with a bit of Mayan mysticism and eco-doom scenarios. The Hollywood PR staff supported the movie with faux websites designed to heighten the effect — almost like the 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast that had people running from a fictional Martian invasion.

While pseudo-science in movies can be entertaining, it can distort the real-time efforts of scientists, inventors and technologists who are producing some amazing breakthroughs in many fields. Consider the following examples and ponder how they might positively impact your life in 2012 and beyond.

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Putting control in the palm of your hand

Biometrics — the use of unique body characteristics for identification — will become increasingly common. A Florida public school, Carolinas Health Care System, and Japan’s Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ are leading the way with palm scanners that read the unique pattern of veins in a person’s hand. Once your palm pattern is on record, you can place your hand over a scanner and be on your way through a lunch line or enter a bank transaction in a couple of seconds. Palm scanners are more accurate and durable than fingerprint IDs.

Place a call, check your health

Smartphones may soon become the hub of early health-care monitoring. AliveCor’s iPhone ECG, scheduled for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval in early 2012, will monitor heart rhythms. A French company will offer an iPhone app for measuring blood pressure. Well-Doc’s FDA-approved diabetes app allows people to input data and get a recommendation of what to do to control their blood sugar. Eventually, as sensor technology improves and computers get smarter, something like an iPhone could serve as Health Monitor Central and an early warning system for a variety of concerns, including cancer detection.

Computers that can think more than one thing at a time …

Microchip architect Dharmendra S. Modha is developing microchips composed of artificial neurons. He hopes to give certain computers the capacity to perform parallel processing of information, much like the human brain. Such a computer wouldn’t replace human input but serve as a preprocessing device that would take complex input from the real world and translate it into terms that conventional computers can use. Brain-like computers would be good at pattern recognition, for example, so could pick a face out of a crowd, identify the individual, and then send that information to a traditional computer.

… and computers that might be “self aware”

Smartphones and other devices consume lots of power because each app grabs everything it can without reference to other programs running. Researchers at MIT, led by Anant Agarwal, last year released Application Heartbeats, software that monitors how other applications within a system are working. He hopes to make operating systems that will regulate power to different apps as needed, learning to improve their choices from internal feedback as they go.


Scientists are putting bacteria to work recovering minerals from low-grade ore. Add bacteria, irrigate with dilute acid, and wait. Twenty percent of the world’s copper is already mined using such techniques. Custom-designed bacteria can also gobble up oil spills and other waste.

Perennial and self-fertilizing crops

Human beings currently raise crops on approximately 38 percent of Earth’s ice-free land. Corn, wheat and most cultivated rice species are annual plants that require tilling the soil, a process that encourages erosion and mineral depletion and puts more carbon into the air. Genetic technology can now tackle the problem of producing perennial crop plants, says agro-ecologist Jerry Glover, although perennial corn, for example, may still be at least 20 years in the future.

Potential benefits could be huge. Plant yields would soar and agricultural land would become a “carbon sink,” reabsorbing some of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Scientists also hope to coax crop plants into harboring the nitrogen-fixing bacteria that turn atmospheric nitrogen into the nitrates crop plants need.

Possible cures for AIDS

In February, virologist Jay Lalezari of Quest Clinical Research treated nine men who had been HIV-positive for 20 years with modified immune cells. These cells no longer possessed the receptor that the HIV virus attacks. HIV virus declined in all the men, completely disappearing in one within 12 weeks. The modified cells eventually replace original immune cells, so could show the way toward a complete cure.

Volcanoes do erupt, asteroids occasionally strike the Earth, and people make plenty of trouble for themselves, but many scientific discoveries go unreported or misinterpreted — and sometimes contorted into glitzy, pseudo-scientific disaster movies. I couldn’t positively assure my student that the world wouldn’t end in 2012, but life’s durable 4-billion-year track record makes that unlikely.

The Mayans were master observers and mathematicians, but unexceptional prognosticators. I’m sure their high priests would be justifiably amazed by the real wonders on display in 2012.

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