Thought Experiment #1: The End of Friction

December 21, 2012, marks the end of the 12th b'ak'tun of the ancient Mayan Long Count calendar. Some unimaginative types speculate that the start of the 13th b'ak'tun, the last day of the Mayan calendar, signifies some sort of transfiguring shift, such as a world-ending catastrophe, perhaps at the hands of Quetzalcoatl. I'd like to propose a much more novel shift: the End of Friction.

At midnight on December 21, 2012, all friction that exists between physical objects will vanish entirely. And so begins the 13th b'ak'tun.

An unsuspecting human sitting in a chair at that moment will notice this peculiar change immediately. His zipper will suddenly come undone. His glasses will slide off of his face. His shoes will come untied. In fact, all of his fabric-based clothes will suddenly disintegrate into a pile of loose fibers, since friction was the only thing holding them together. And that pile of fibers will quickly flatten itself across the entire surface of the floor. At that point, he will slide off of his chair, unless he has his fingers securely hooked around its legs.

But he would have bigger things to worry about than sliding butt-naked onto the floor. The hot and cold faucets suddenly turn on full blast, right as the pipes themselves unscrew and clang to the ground. All of the nails and all of the screws that are holding his house together suddenly start falling out of the wood (well, only those that were installed with their tips pointing upwards). His plastic raincoat, however, stays hanging securely from its loop on the coat rack - and his loose change is staying put in its jar. Which just slid off his not-quite-level dresser.

If he were able to escape his disintegrating house in time (perhaps by blowing air to propel his naked self across the floor and out the front door), he would find the outside world faring no better. Balloons untie themselves and splutter away from crying children. Dogs' leashes slip out of their owners' hands, leaving them to scuffle excitedly in place as if the sidewalk were a slick hardwood floor (a sensation not foreign to most dogs). Moving cars are dropping parts until they're not much more than an engine block and tires skidding along the asphalt in a pool of bolts, axels, mirrors, and body panels. Street signs are dropping from their posts, and the posts themselves (those not embedded in concrete) are toppling to the ground as dirt and gravel begin to liquify like quicksand.

Overhead, birds circle bemusedly, not quite sure what to make of the chaos below. Although an osprey might begin to wonder why it dropped the delicious bass it just caught.

The exhausted citizens of Earth swim through the oceans of debris and begin to gather on islands of bedrock and concrete. They must rebuild their civilization under these new physical rules. Clothes may no longer be made of thread and zippers, but rather sheets of plastic and seaweed held taut by hooks and buttons. Homes must be built of solid interlocking parts held in place by tension and gravity. Transportation is made possible only by harnessing the power of the wind, or just flopping around a lot until you end up somewhere new.

Better to just find yourself a nice shallow depression in the bedrock where you can curl up with your seaweed blanket and a good book.

Maybe the next b'ak'tun will be better.