The Physics and Astronomy department at Colgate hosts weekly lectures by professors from other institutions about their research or interests.  This week we had the pleasure of hosting Professor Adam Frank of the University of Rochester, who studies stellar outflows, and how they affect start formation.  I was really surprised to learn that was what Professor Frank studies, because his talk today was about cultural perceptions of time.  He has, in fact, written a book about this (which isn't yet published, so here's a link to another one of his).

While he has obviously read a lot about the subject, and taught me a few things (e.g. first sleep), I was most interested in the talk we had afterwards over lunch with the physics club and professor Bary who also joined in.  The discussion went about the idea of energy sustainability, mostly, and how oil has given us a 'free energy' card to play for the last hundred years that allowed us to live in ways that we probably couldn't have otherwise.  This notion of a free oil energy card was new and unusual to me.  It was based on the extreme energy-freedom we have now because of all of the energy we use from oil.

Oil is (like most earthly energy sources) mainly stored solar energy, in a potent form.  Over millions of years, plant and animal matter has been pressed down into the stuff and collected in pockets in the Earth.  Because we only found out about how much energy it had recently, we've had millennia's worth of energy to draw on, and we've drawn most of it in the last hundred years.  This allows us the cars we're all so used to, the sprawl, the easy consumption, but imagine a world with a lower energy budget.  What if we could only afford to run the washer once a month? Or to drive only on the longest of trips because the energy to power these things was so rare that we actually only had enough to use it sometimes. I'm pretty sure I can barely even conceive of that

Also discussed was the failings of modern string theory to explain the so-called fine-tuning of the standard model.  The fine-tuning problem is that there are a number of constants in the standard model describing forces and the like that just seem to be from the universe itself.  We don't really have any reason they should be what they are, other than that they make the equations describe our universe.  The other strange part is that they could only be pretty much exactly what they are to get anything like our universe to exist.  Some people like to use this sort of thing as a rationale for a god of some kind, but that's just not seeing the pavement for the puddle.