Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
In the new sci-fi epic Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway don astronaut suits, leave an Earth that has been so poisoned it can no longer produce food to support the human race, and zip through a wormhole in search of new planets where homo sapiens might be able start over—while Jessica Chastain works on a mathematical formula that will allow our species to defy gravity. The big-budget blockbuster is a familiar gotta-save-humanity cinematic romp, chock-full of dramatic chills and special effects thrills. But Interstellar, directed by Batman movie-maker Chris Nolan, also attempts to attain a certain gravitas by taking seriously the science invoked within the film. After all, Kip Thorne, one of the world's leading theoretical physicists and experts on relativity, was an executive producer and consultant for the movie. And Neil DeGrasse Tyson has praised the flick for featuring scientific principles "as no other feature film has shown." But one of our planet's top astrobiologists has a somewhat different view.
I took David Grinspoon, who holds the chair of astrobiology at the Library of Congress, to the Washington, DC, premiere of Interstellar—a posh event held at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and attended by pundits, scientists, and aerospace firm officials and lobbyists. Afterward, he and I recorded an episode of the Inquiring Mindspodcast focused on the science and themes of this grand film.
Grinspoon, a 2006 winner of the Carl Sagan Medal, advises NASA on planetary exploration and is involved with the Venus Express spacecraft and the Curiosity Rover on Mars. He is a widely-recognized expert on the possibility of life beyond Earth. He runs a funky website and is working on a book about the anthropocene—the somewhat controversial notion that the Earth is in a geologic epoch being shaped by human activity. And a few years ago, he attended a meeting of scientists called together by the makers of Interstellar—back when Steven Spielberg was slated to direct the film—to kick around the scientific ideas presented in the movie. That is, Grinspoon was the perfect date for this movie.
So, I asked him, what was it like to be present at creation? Grinspoon recalled:
There was a meeting of the minds that a bunch of us were invited to…on the Caltech campus. It was really fun. They had some astronomers, astrobiologists, psychologists…They presented the very basic premise of the film and asked us to brainstorm on some of the themes, and they recorded the whole thing. Spielberg showed up, and he brought his dad…It was a very wide-ranging discussion…What I remember of the treatment that we saw at that time…it had some of the same themes of getting to other planets and using black holes. But that was kind of it. It didn't have the plot yet...If memory serves me, the original story actually had [theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen] Hawking as a character in the film, who was going to be sent into orbit. Experiencing weightlessness is something that helped him with his disability…I don't know how much of this I'm conflating now. It's been a few years. But I think there was even a love interest.
Stephen Hawking playing Stephen Hawking in love in outer space? "Exactly," Grinspoon said. "Those themes of love and space are still in the final movie"—even though Hawking isn't.
But back to the science: Do wormholes, which defy conventional physics and our down-to-earth notion of time, exist? Can they be stellar shortcuts used to get from one end of the universe to the other in a flash? And can they be created by sentient beings, as the movie suggests? Well, maybe, Grinspoon said, but there's at least one big problem with using a wormhole for transportation:
It's sort of pushing the edge of what is scientifically possible. It helps solve a problem. There is a big problem, if you're going to have any kind of a fictional plot involving travel to other stars. If you do it with normal physics, it's going to take hundreds of years. Who has the time for a movie that long? That's the whole thing with Star Trek. We had warp drive.
"You'd end up ripping apart everything that went into the wormhole," says Grinspoon. "It's not like NASA is actually working on this."
Wormhole is sort of the modern version of warp drive. And, yeah, there are actually solutions to Einstein's general relativity that produce these structures that have been called wormholes, where the geometry of space-time connects different places that in normal space are very distant in the universe. In theory, you can do that. The problem is, if you actually look at how that might work, it doesn't really work. You'd end up ripping apart everything that went into the wormhole. It's not like NASA is actually working on this. It's a way to have your plot device fit the science.
In the movie, a scientist explains how a wormhole could make distant space exploration possible by placing a point at the top of a piece of paper and drawing a line to a point at the bottom. The bottom point, we are told, is very, very, very far from the top. Think galaxies apart. He then folds the paper in half so the points line up and punches a hole in the paper through both points. That hole is a wormhole. Is this, I asked Grinspoon, a scientifically accurate reflection of how space-time can bend?
I loved that scene. That's exactly how a physicist would explain a wormhole…That is exactly how Kip Thorne would describe a wormhole, and he is the guy who came up with wormholes…That scene was great from a scientific point of view. That's exactly how a physicist would explain it.
So the movie does take the science seriously? Well, Grinspoon says, not always:
Yes and no. Here I'm balancing my inner snob and my delight that people are interested in a movie on themes that I love. But there is a critique I can't help but apply to this. The science is spotty. It's interesting they had Kip Thorne involved. They paid a lot of attention to relativity and space-time. And yet there's this whole other theme about what happens to the planet, what happens to the Earth, and these other planets. They go and find planets and there are conditions on them [not consistent with science]. The planetary parts of the film, I thought, were really weak. That's my bailiwick.
"The planetary parts of the film, I thought, were really weak," says Grinspoon. "There are aspects to the planets they get to which…don't make sense from basic physics.
For instance, they describe this ecological disaster on Earth. I like the fact they are talking about that and raising consciousness. It's clear that it's climate change and we screwed up the Earth…That's a good theme. But the specific things they say about it—they say there's this blight [attacking all crops] that's building up the nitrogen [in the atmosphere] and that's going to draw down the oxygen. Anybody who knows about planetary atmosphere is going to sit there at that point and go, "That's a bunch of BS." It's not that that ruins the movie for most people. But why couldn't they have run that by somebody? It wouldn't change the plot…There are aspects to the planets they get to which also don't make sense from basic physics. There's a planet with ice clouds…That's BS…Something like that would fall. Because of gravity! Is that so crucial to the plot? There's a planet around a black hole…Some physicists might quibble whether that's even possible or stable. But one obvious problem is, when they landed there it was daylight. But there's no sun and a black hole doesn't put out light. So where is the light coming from?
Is this being too picky? The filmmakers do try hard to show there is science underlying the seemingly impossible journey made. Yet at the end, several knotty plot dilemmas are resolved when—the most mild spoiler alert!—a character enters a black hole and is somehow able to communicate with others back on Earth and in the past. So, I put it to Grinspoon, is this science or…magic?
It's on the fine line between science and magic…If you were at a cocktail party with a few physicists who had a few drinks, which I've been to, this is the kind of thing that comes up. And somebody said, "Name a subject that's really on the edge between science and magic," somebody will say, "Time travel through black holes." You can find some equation when it sort of, maybe works. But, then, of course, if you have time travel, it introduces all these horrible paradoxes. What if you went back and told your mother not to marry your father?…In the movie I found it suspiciously close to magic. That was one thing that bothered me. It was kind of like they needed to tie up the plot: and, then there's a black hole, and magical things happen, so everything is fine.
The ending was tough to figure. Can you really have a five-dimensional system manifested in a three-dimensional manner that allows someone to go back in time to the precise place he or she needs to be to save humanity? I confessed to Grinspoon that I was confused.
I kind of liked that aspect. I sort of like the fact that you are confused by that. Reality on that level is confusing. One of the weird things about modern physics is that we do find there are apparently these other dimensions that we don't directly experience that explain some aspects of the overall geometry and reality of our universe. When you encounter the real physics of that stuff, you do get this feeling you are having now of going, "Well, that's confusing, how could that be?" I'm not sure about the specific realism of how that was depicted. But I do like the idea that there's a movie that is going to get people thinking, "Really? There could be other dimensions?" That is evoking something that people have when they encounter modern physics.
At first glance, Interstellar does seem to have a green message, warning that climate change could make the world uninhabitable for humans (and, presumably, other species). Yet there's an odd twist. The tag line for the film is, "The end of the Earth will not be the end of us." And the lead scientist, played by Michael Caine (no longer Alfred the Butler), says at one point: "We are not meant to save the world. We are meant to leave it." In other words, if humans do trash the planet, don't worry, some super-smart folks will help us make a nice get-away somewhere else in this swell and expanding universe. Given that Grinspoon researches life and planetary development, I wondered what he thought of this cut-and-run theme.
That tagline…is problematical. The reality is the opposite. It's quite possible that the end of us will not be the end of the Earth. Even if we really screw things up and things go badly for us and our civilization, the Earth is pretty resilient. The current species here will have a mass extinction, but life will not extinguish and the Earth will recover and go on…We're more fragile than life. And then there's the moral implication: It doesn't really matter, there are other planets out there, the heck with this one. I found that bothersome. Of course, in the very long run, if we are successful in getting through our current little problems of being a technological civilization, and we last for thousands, even millions and billions of years, ultimately the Earth and the sun will run their course. So if we become one of those super-wise beings that are implied in this film that make wormholes, at some point we will have to deal with the problem of moving.
That's in the long run. The very long run.
To hear my full interview with David Grinspoon, listen to Inquiring Minds below:
Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes orRSS. We are also available on Stitcher. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" on iTunes—you can learn more here.
As the postelection celebration (for the GOP) and cleanup (for the White House and the Democrats) continues, some political observers of a D bent are trying to push a silver-lining idea: Now that the Republicans fully control Congress, they will have to act more responsibly and demonstrate that they can govern and not just say no to everything.
Isn't it pretty to think so.
There is little evidence to support this lovely notion. The fundamental political dynamic of the Republican Party has not shifted; it's advance has been fueled by its Obama-hating tea party wing. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Cory Gardner of Colorado will be two new GOP stars in the Senate, and they both hail from the far-right region of their party. Their model senator will likely be Ted Cruz of Texas, who on election night refused to endorse the newly reelected Mitch McConnell of Kentucky as Senate majority leader, signaling his intention to lead what might be called the Monkey Wrench Caucus. And in the House, the tea party club—which blocked House Speaker John Boehner's deal-making with the White House and pushed for government shutdowns and a debt ceiling crisis—will likely have a few more members when the new Congress convenes in January. The lesson the House tea partiers will probably draw: Obstruction pays off, big-time.
Sure, Republican lawmakers will be eager to pass bills, but their efforts won't be aimed at forging compromises with the president. Their legislation will likely target Obamacare and slash spending for social programs. They can be expected to fiercely block presidential appointments, especially judges. They might try to enact restrictions on abortion, and they will certainly seek to gut environmental regulations and climate change policies. Oh yes, and they will push tax cuts for the well-to-do. Such an agenda will be predicated on more confrontation and obstruction.
The idea that Republicans, emboldened by this election, will now negotiate more reasonably with the president seems like wishful thinking. At least one senior administration official assumes it is. When I asked him whether he was buying this happy talk, he laughed and grimaced simultaneously. "The problem hasn't been that Boehner doesn't want to govern," he said. "He can't, because of the crazies in his own party." With these election results, the official pointed out, there will be even more "crazies" for Boehner and McConnell to contend with.
"And just wait until Cruz is chairman of some subcommittee," he added with a sigh. A long sigh.
"We are the ones we have been waiting for." That's what Barack Obama proclaimed the night of Super Tuesday in 2008, borrowing the line from a 1980 June Jordan poem (without citing the poet). His aspirational emphasis on we was a foundation of the campaign that brought him to the White House. But it's the president's inability to find a way, while steering the nation through a series of crises, to turn that we into a reality that has brought him and his party to the darkness of Election Day 2014, when Republicans bolstered their tea-party-driven majority in the House and handily seized control of the Senate. Soon they will crown Mitch McConnell, who easily dispatched his Democratic challenger, as Senate majority leader. And imperiled GOP governors across the country—Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Scott in Florida, and Rick Snyder in Michigan—vanquished their Democratic foes. Dems flamed out across the land—even as voters in red states approved initiatives to boost the minimum wage.
As president—as opposed to as candidate—Obama has not been able to engage fully the voting public. He has faced numerous obstacles—GOP obstructionism in Washington, global circumstances that yield one tough-to-resolve dilemma after another, and the rise of a profound unease and uncertainty (about now and about the future) among Americans. And Obama, like most two-term presidents, has had to confront the six-year itch that usually leads to a loss of House and Senate seats for the chief executive's party. Still, it is partly Obama's failure as the nation's storyteller-in-chief to keep the citizenry—especially his voters—involved in the ongoing political narrative that afforded the GOP, a party on the wrong side of the country's changing demographic tide and often at odds with public opinion (on the minimum wage, on gun safety, on key components of Obamacare), the chance to expand its political power.
Obama announcing Perez's nomination as labor secretary in 2013.
Whether or not the Democrats lose their Senate majority on Tuesday, President Barack Obama will need to show some fight after the midterm elections. If the Republicans triumph, Obama must do something to rally his discouraged supporters and show he won't spend his final two years as a truly lame-duck president. If the Dems manage to hold the Senate, the president, who has been pinned down by ISIS, Ebola, and other crises, will still be looking for a way to take back the political narrative and flex his political and policy muscle. Either way, he has a good option: nominate Tom Perez as attorney general.
The chatter in Washington is that Obama will announce his pick to replace the outgoing Eric Holder soon after Election Day, and Perez is on the White House's short list. Based on his resumé, Perez, who is now secretary of labor, is a reasonable choice. He's also one of the administration's most stalwart progressives.
Before taking charge of the Department of Labor in July 2013, Perez was the assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's civil rights division. The office had been eviscerated under George W. Bush, and Perez revitalized it by mounting voting rights cases and legal challenges to discrimination against gays and lesbians. During his tenure, the division opened a record-breaking number of investigations into police abuse and forged wide-ranging agreements to clean up various police forces accused of misconduct, no small matter given recent national debates and controversy sparked by the Ferguson episode and the Trayvon Martin shooting.
Using its authority to compel institutional changes in local law enforcement agencies that have engaged in systemic violations of Americans' constitutional rights, Perez's office has helped to overhaul the police department of Puerto Rico and New Orleans police force. (New Orleans police officers shot several civilians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.) It has scrutinized the Miami and Seattle police departments and exposed the civil rights abuses of Arizona's notorious anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Perez has long demonstrated a commitment to civil rights and a robust role for government. As a federal prosecutor during George H.W. Bush's administration, he won notable convictions of several neo-Nazis who had committed a string of murders designed to spark a race war. He later worked for Sen. Ted Kennedy before being elected to the Montgomery County council in Maryland and joining the board of an immigration rights group.
Since the financial meltdown, the Justice Department has faced criticism that it did not prosecute the Wall Streeters most responsible for triggering the catastrophic recession that hit in 2008. That wasn't Perez's call. But as chief of the civil rights division, he did target big banks by bringing enforcement actions against financial institutions for racial discrimination and for foreclosing on active-duty military service-members in violation of federal law. He created a fair lending unit within the division that went on to win a $335 million settlement against Bank of America and a $175 million settlement against Wells Fargo. These were the two largest fair-housing settlements in Justice Department history.
After being promoted to run the Labor Department, Perez also fired up that bureaucracy. As Politico recently noted,
It was one of the federal government's sleepier outposts for most of the dozen years that preceded Perez's arrival just over one year ago. But Labor has been newly energized under Perez. "Enforcement activity is up," Alfred Robinson Jr., who was an acting wage and hour administrator for the Labor Department during the George W. Bush administration, noted earlier this month in a blog post. The department has also raised its public profile on issues like minimum wage and paid medical leave and lavished favorable attention on companies that give employees what Perez calls "voice."
So the guy has the legal, policy, and management chops to be attorney general. And if Obama nominated him, the president would send a resounding message that he remained committed to a progressive agenda.
Now for the politics: Perez is the son of exiled Dominican immigrants. Hispanic members of Congress, immigration reform advocates, and labor organizations have called on Obama to tap him for the nation's chief law enforcement job. On Friday, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of 39 leading Latino outfits, sent the president a letter requesting he name Perez. Does the president want to disappoint key constituencies at a time when he could use all the friends he can get? Other names reported to be on the AG short list—Solicitor General Don Verrilli and US attorneys Loretta Lynch and Preet Bharara—will likely not elicit much grassroots enthusiasm.
On the other side, would Republicans, who are already on the outs with Latino voters over their opposition to immigration reform, fight this high-profile nomination and risk further alienating a growing voting bloc? Perhaps.
Perez has been a favorite target of the right for years. While he did win confirmation relatively easily when he was nominated to be assistant attorney general, with a 72-22 vote in the Senate, some GOPers had tried to stop him, citing Perez's support of immigration reform and (discredited) allegations concerning a voter intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party.
But when Obama tapped Perez to be labor secretary, Republicans, as the White House expected, put up more resistance. Some in the party didn't fancy Perez's success revitalizing the civil rights division. And critics on the right claimed he had cut a corrupt deal to prevent a Minnesota housing discrimination case from reaching the Supreme Court. The case was odd and complicated: landlords had used a federal fair-housing law to oppose an effort by the city of St. Paul to enforce basic housing standards. The property owners had argued that a crackdown on horrible conditions at low-income housing sites discriminated against minority tenants.
Civil rights advocates feared that if this weird case landed before the highest court, Chief Justice John Roberts and his fellow conservatives would use the occasion as an opportunity to gut the fair housing law. But city officials offered Perez a deal: they would drop their Supreme Court appeal, but only if the Justice Department declined to support a separate case filed against St. Paul by a whistleblower who alleged that the city had failed to use $180 million in federal funds meant to go to programs for lower-income residents. Perez consulted with the appropriate ethics and professional responsibility officials within the Justice Department—and the department official with authority over the whistleblower's case—and he received green lights from all before accepting the offer. (The city of St. Paul was required to agree to meet the spending obligations in question in the future.) The maneuver helped preserve an important civil rights law—which many conservatives have long wanted to weaken—and a bunch of Republicans were hopping mad and accused Perez of bribery.
Not surprisingly, Senate Republicans tried for months to stymie Perez's nomination as labor secretary. Eventually, he was put to a vote as part of a larger deal involving other appointments that had been delayed by GOP lawmakers. In July 2013, Perez was confirmed on a party-line vote of 54-46.
Should Obama appoint Perez, it's a good bet that Senate Republicans would see red and kick off a holy brawl. (In a taste of things to come, a Wall Street Journal columnist raised the St. Paul case again just this week.) But win or lose, a fight could help Obama. It would signify that the president is serious about advancing voting rights, civil rights, immigration reform, and fair lending—and it could well yield the extra benefit of reinforcing the negative attitudes Latinos have toward the Republican Party.
Presidents are defined in part by their battles—especially the ones they choose to wage. Perez presents Obama a chance to take a stand that could bolster his party's political prospects and boost his policy agenda, at a time when he surely has to do both.
Whitney Ball is one of the most important money people in the conservative movement. Though she receives little public notice, she controls DonorsTrust, a fund that over the years has distributed more than $400 million to underwrite a host of right-wing operations, including the National Rifle Association, the Heritage Foundation, Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, and the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity. A self-described libertarian, Ball set up this fund in 1999 as something of a cash box for wealthy conservatives who wanted to be sure that the money left behind when they died would not be used by liberal-minded heirs to finance their own favorite political causes. So before they expire, these millionaires and billionaires direct their assets to Ball's fund in the comfort of knowing that her group will responsibly manage their wealth in accordance with their ideological wishes. The priority for DonorsTrust, Ball said in a 2005 interview, is to "safeguard donor intent." But a few years ago, Ball became involved in an unseemly estate controversy, when her father, a lawyer in West Virginia, unethically handled the wills of three elderly people and Whitney Ball and her brother personally benefited from his misconduct, with nearly half a million dollars deposited in their bank accounts.
According to a ruling by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, which conducted a disciplinary proceeding regarding the matter, in the mid-1990s attorney John Ball prepared wills for two octogenarian sisters, Vivian Michael and Gladys Davis, who were long-standing clients of his. The will he arranged for Michael bequeathed a car she owned to Ball, and the wills of both sisters left all their personal property to Ball's wife.
"To permit Mr. Ball to retain any of the proceeds of his unethical conduct would send a chilling message to the public," the court said.
In April 1998, four months after Michael died, Ball took Davis to a bank where she changed the beneficiary of an annuity she owned. That person had been her sister Vivian, but "while at the bank," according to the court ruling, "Ms. Davis designated Mr. Ball's two adult children, Whitney L. Ball and John P. Ball, Jr., as the new beneficiaries of the annuity." Ball, the court said, knew that Davis was going to make this change and had provided her with the addresses and Social Security numbers of his children. When Davis died three years later, the annuity was valued at $487,783.13. The money was distributed in equal amounts to Whitney and John Jr.
Ball, who was the executor of the wills for these two sisters, also arranged to receive a fee of 7.5 percent of the total value of the estates—though, the ruling noted, "the generally accepted maximum charge for administering an estate" was 5 percent. He pocketed nearly $1.6 million in fees for handling both estates. The wills he had drafted left money to the West Virginia University Foundation and stated that as executor Ball would help oversee the donations of these funds and be allowed to charge the foundation a fee. He netted $337,000 for this, after negotiating with the foundation an annual fee of 1 percent of the $18,400,000 the sisters left to the school. The court ruling notes that Ball also set up a will for another state resident who wanted to leave the bulk of his assets to the West Virginia University Foundation, with Ball awarding himself a 7.5 percent fee. (The court did not determine if Ball actually collected that fee.)
In 2006, after the county bar association had examined Ball's handling of these wills, the state Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that the "evidence in this case clearly established that Mr. Ball drafted three wills in which he gave himself excessive fees as an executor, drafted two wills that improperly conveyed property to himself and his wife, and assisted in changing a client's annuity to benefit" his children.