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  • The other side of the apocalypse
Dec 2012
Dec. 28, 2012 — We seem to have survived the end of the world, though we can hardly say we’ve survived it unscathed. Even in the context of an already difficult year, the past several months have felt like a brickbat to the head. A bruising campaign season reminding us of a deeply polarized electorate. Hurricane Sandy laying waste to the Jersey shore and the southern coast of Long Island. Dysfunction in Washington leading us to the brink of the so-called fiscal cliff. And a week before the world was scheduled to end — per a misreading of the Mayan calendar — the inexpressible horror of Newtown.

It’s not clear whether the apocalypse in fact occurred on Dec. 21. An asteroid did not slam into the Earth, sending it spinning into the void. The four horsemen did not make an appearance. In any event, the world is pretty much the same as it was on the 20th. And that, it must be said, is scary enough.

What does this mean for the optics community? What can we look forward to on the other side of the end of the world? As is often the case, the challenges that we face as a society can shape, and in many ways be shaped by, work done in the community. So, the enervating and occasionally intractable problems of the past several months … those were, and are still, our problems.

Take, for example, the deficit. On the one hand, the spending cuts that will kick in if we go over the fiscal cliff (as I write this, we haven’t yet done so) could seriously impact the optics community. The so-called sequestration would involve an approximately 8 percent cut in funding for federal research agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, major sources of funding for many optics researchers.

On the other hand, optics could play a significant role in addressing the deficit. Increasing revenue is an important part of doing so, but this involves more than just raising taxes. We must also encourage growth in industries that can help bolster the economy: Biotechnology and renewable energy, to name but two optics-related areas. Of course, how and to what extent to do this remain open questions.

And the deficit is only one of the challenges we face in our possibly post-apocalyptic world. The prospect of climate change and its short- and long-term impact. Dwindling natural resources. The ongoing debate over health care. Immigration reform. The state of our education system. Each of these has the potential to shape and/or be shaped by work done in the optics community. Each of these is, to a degree, our problem.

The good news about all of this? For what it’s worth, we’ll have plenty to talk about in the coming year.

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