Over the past year, Americans have spent an average of 11.8 hours a day consuming information, sucking up, in aggregate, 3.6 zettabytes of data and 10,845 trillion words. That is triple the amount of “content” that we consumed in 1980.Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, begins, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” When it comes to data to make wise decisions, answer critical questions, and resolve significant problems, today truly is the best and worst of times. There is more data than ever and it’s growing by 30% a year, according to recent industry analyst estimates.
Thanks to this gargantuan download from all forms of media, we now know vastly more than we did a year ago about bankers’ bonuses, Sarah Palin, “death panels,” Glenn Beck, where Barack Obama was born, Jon and Kate, and cocktail waitresses who have spent quality time with Tiger Woods.
Hidden among that avalanche of diverting gigabytes were some developments of more enduring significance. Here are just a few:
The use of drones became a central part of the American antiterrorism strategy this year, with President Obama sanctioning about 50 Predator strikes — more than George W. Bush approved in his entire second term. As Jane Mayer of The New Yorker reported earlier this year, most of the targets of these assassinations were in the tribal regions of Pakistan, with as many as 500 people killed. Those killed in the missile attacks include many high-ranking Qaeda and Taliban figures and dozens of women and children who lived with them or happened to be nearby.
The military is so enthusiastic about these remotely piloted planes that it is building new ones as fast as it can (including a more heavily armed version called the Reaper). It also announced that it will deploy drones to scour the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean for drug smugglers. What’s more, the government is now working on “nano” drones the size of a hummingbird, which would be able to pursue targets into homes and buildings.
CAR CRAZY IN CHINA
This year, China surpassed the United States as the largest consumer of that iconic American machine — the automobile. China’s emerging middle class has fallen in love with cars, with sales up more than 40 percent over 2008; there are now long waiting lists for the coolest and hottest models, ranging from the Buick LaCrosse to BMWs. Automakers are expected to sell 12.8 million cars and light trucks in China this year — 2.5 million more than in America.
China’s auto boom, of course, has major implications for global efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The nation of 1.3 billion is on pace to double its consumption of gasoline and diesel over the next decade.
REAL WORKING WIVES
In more than a third of American households, women are now the chief breadwinners. This reversal of traditional roles was accelerated by a brutal two-year recession, in which 75 percent of all jobs lost were held by men.
Even in homes where both spouses work, one in four wives now earns more than her husband. That’s partly because of rising education levels among women, falling salaries in manufacturing and blue-collar jobs and the growing need for both spouses to bring home a paycheck. Wives’ earnings, said Kristin Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, have become “critical to keeping families afloat.”
A NEW SOURCE OF STEM CELLS
Scientists re-engineered regular skin cells from mice into stem cells that are just as versatile as embryonic stem cells. To demonstrate that these re-engineered adult cells could be used to create any kind of cell in the body, the Chinese research team inserted just a few of them into placental tissue and developed them into healthy mice. “We have gone from science fiction to reality,” said Robert Lanza, a cell biologist.
If further research on the new technique proves successful, it may create a viable means for scientists to use a patient’s own tissue to produce a replacement liver, kidney or other organ — without the ethical concerns attached to the harvesting of stem cells from human embryos. But reprogramming adult cells opens the door to a new ethical problem: a rogue scientist could use the method to create human beings from a few cells scraped from a person’s arm. “All the pieces are there for serious abuse,” Mr. Lanza said.
TEEMING WITH PLANETS
Astronomers are closing in on identifying distant worlds that may have the right conditions to support life. Techniques for detecting “exoplanets” are becoming more sophisticated, and over 400 have been discovered so far — 30 in October alone. This year brought two particularly intriguing finds. One is Gliese 581d, orbiting a star at a distance that could indicate surface temperatures not so different from Earth’s. Astronomers also discovered a “waterworld” composed mostly of H2O, which would be a prime candidate for extraterrestrial life if it were just a little farther from its sun.
The discovery of Earth-like planets, with water and moderate temperatures, is now so likely that the Vatican held a conference of astrobiologists this year to discuss the theological repercussions of extraterrestrial life. “If biology is not unique to the Earth, or life elsewhere differs biochemically from our version, or we ever make contact with an intelligent species in the vastness of space, the implications for our self-image will be profound,” said Chris Impey, a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona.
Discovering that we have company in the universe, in fact, might open our eyes to what’s important on Earth.