We entered 2003 like walking into a science fiction film.
The Raelians claimed to have cloned a human being and the world was too amused to take the claim seriously. After all, these people looked like they just stepped out of The Addams Family en route to beaming aboard the Starship Enterprise. And their background story was like something from "Star Trek." Using the worldwide interest in their cloning claims, they proceeded to inform us of a theology based on God-as-genetic-engineer, free love, and cloning as the key to eternal life in a material universe. Now, we await verification of their feat, hoping our amusement will still be justified a week from now.
Whether the universe is material or something far different, however, became even more of a topic for scientific discourse as 2003 dawned. Everywhere you turn, scientific orthodoxy is under assault. Astronomers and cosmologists got a jolt when it was discovered that the universe appears to be flying apart at a greater pace than dreamed possible.
Up until 2002, the great debate among cosmologists--those who study the origins, present state and destiny of the material universe--had been about whether the universe was "opened" or "closed." By closed, they meant the Big Bang that first began occurring 15 billion years ago, give or take a couple of billion, will reverse itself eventually, and the whole cosmos will collapse back upon itself, begin to contract, and possibly swirl back down a black hole at the end of time. Some cosmologists believe the whole process will begin again, then, with a new Big Bang that will re-create the universe.
If the universe is open, however, the stars and planets will continue to expand ever outward and away from one another, as they run out of energy, until a process called entropy reduces the cosmos to a homogenized energy field, equally dispersed throughout.
Open or Closed. These were the two main alternatives promoted until very recently. What scientists didn't expect to discover was a new form of "dark energy" which is driving the stars and planets away from one another faster and faster the farther they expand from the point of origin of the Big Bang. In fact, some scientists believe that much of the universe already has flown so far away and so fast that we never will have the ability to observe it. Why the outer universe would fly ever faster apart--rather than slow down in its expansion--has not been answered, beyond the notion that some "Great Repeller," formerly unheard of, is more powerful than either gravity or the electro- magnetic forces that glue the whole works together.
More than one scientist has suggested that--despite the discovery of million of galaxies, each containing billions of stars and untold billions more planets, moons, asteroids and comets-- 95 percent or more of the universe is composed of "dark matter" and "dark energy," much of it residing in dimensions that will be forever unknowable. To many, such incomprehensible discoveries only increase the amount of awe one experiences when trying to contemplate creation. It shifts the burden of proof back to those who say no creator exists of such a wondrous universe.
If such arcane theorizing loses most of us, however, several other news stories, seemingly written by H.G. Wells or Arthur C. Clarke, were all too comprehensible. In Iraq, drone planes took to the skies, stalking the enemy while putting no American lives at risk. Watch in coming months as the United States fills the skies with such drones--patrolling our coastlines and invading Iraq, along with a bevy of smart bombs, missiles and surveillance devices. Such devices might soon find their way into North Korea, a small renegade regime holding the world hostage with threats of building nuclear weapons, a scenario previously played out only between the covers of science fiction thrillers. And yet, such prominent stories barely scratch the surface of the brave new world we've entered like a sci-fi flick.
Hardly mentioned in the popular press was the activity of scientists who placed mice memory cells onto computer chips and used them to make robots behave like mice. Others reversed the feat, placing computer chips in mice to make them behave as robots. Major commitments were made to creating hydrogen-based cars, which promise to one day defeat the curse of fossil fuels. Large amounts of water were discovered on Mars... and so it goes.
The past becomes less and less a guide to the future. It'll be exhilarating and more than a little scary to see how "2003: A Surreal Odyssey" unfolds as time travels on.