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Science

Trump’s USGS Chief Violated Whistleblower Protection Law, Inspector General Says

The head of the U.S. Geological Survey violated the federal whistleblower protection law when he retaliated against an agency employee who had filed a complaint about his conduct, according to a new report from the Interior Department’s internal watchdog.

The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General concluded that USGS Director James Reilly had the employee reassigned after learning of the individual’s complaint regarding Reilly’s conduct ― though the report does not detail the content of that initial complaint.

The scathing report, posted Thursday afternoon, comes two days after Trump’s Interior Department publicly boasted of its efforts to hire additional ethics staff in order to “remove the rotten stench from the blatant failure of the prior administration.” The agency has repeatedly blamed the Obama administration for its ethical shortfalls.

As Thursday’s report details, Reilly tried to convince investigators that the reassignment was due to the employee’s inability to work with another staff member and “negative influence” on the office ― claims that that agency staff directly contradicted.

“A witness also told us that Reilly had described the complainant as ‘evil’ without explaining why he believed this, and Reilly ultimately acknowledged that he said in front of others that the complainant had an ‘evil streak,’ or words to that effect, which he admitted ‘was a very poor choice of words,’” the report states.

Another witness told investigators about a meeting in which Reilly said the complainant had “weaponized the IG process” against him. And USGS employees reported that Reilly sought information about any other employee complaints against him so that he could “move them.”

Asked if he had any issues with the whistleblower, Reilly told investigators, “Well, there’s one very large one that’s sitting in this room. It’s this investigation, to be perfectly honest.”

The report does not name the whistleblower or any other USGS staffers interviewed as part of the probe.

“While the [Department of the Interior] provided some evidence of other motivations that may have played a role in its personnel decision, it failed to disentangle those motivations from the evidence of impermissible, retaliatory motive found during our investigation,” investigators wrote.

The Democratic chairs of the House oversight and natural resources committees responded to Thursday’s report by calling for Reilly’s immediate resignation or removal from office.

“Whistleblower retaliation does not get more clear cut than this,” Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) said in a joint statement. “Director Reilly made it a practice to seek out whistleblowers and target them for transfer. Anyone who uses official power to retaliate against whistleblowers — who help uncover waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement — is not fit to hold government office.”

In an emailed statement, Interior spokesman Nicholas Goodwin dismissed the report as “wrong in its legal and factual conclusions” and said it “attempts to turn the USGS human resources department’s reassignment of an administrative employee into a prohibited personnel practice.” He noted that the employee did not receive a reduction in pay or grade status.

USGS Director James Reilly is a former astronaut and oil-industry geologist. 



USGS Director James Reilly is a former astronaut and oil-industry geologist. 

This isn’t Reilly’s first controversy since he was confirmed as USGS director in April 2018. Recent press reports have uncovered how he intervened to halt, alter or delay research on critical scientific topics, including climate change, endangered species, and COVID-19. Reilly was also involved in manipulating agency data to promote logging. And in interviews with Wired, some employees at the USGS described his tenure there as hostile.

Under Trump, the Interior Department has been plagued by scandals. Former Interior chief Ryan Zinke resigned amid numerous investigations into his conduct, and several other high-ranking officials have been found to have violated federal ethics rules. Several IG probes are ongoing.

If past violations are any indication, Interior is unlikely to take action against Reilly.

The IG’s office released two scathing reports on Assistant Interior Secretary Douglas Domenech in the past year, finding that he used his office to benefit family members as well as his former employer, a Koch-linked think tank. Despite the seriousness of the findings, Domenech remains in his position atop the agency’s insular and international affairs office. Domenech is a top lieutenant and close personal friend of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

“For the DOI generally, I would be shocked if they do anything about this report” on Reilly, said Kevin Bell, senior counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a government watchdog group that advocates for whistleblowers. “If anything,” he added, “Reilly’s retaliation against whistleblowers only solidifies his Trumpian credentials.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told HuffPost via email that the report “shows that the risk of being a whistleblower has never been higher than during the Trump administration.”

The administration, he added, “has used every trick in the book, from demotions to presidential tweets, to bully whistleblowers into silence.”

Additional IG reports on the misdeeds of top Interior Department officials, including one who used his office to promote the policy priorities of the National Rifle Association, are expected in the near future. 

As HuffPost previously reported, Trump and his team have led a slow strangling of IGs across the federal government since taking office. That has ramped up earlier this year: Trump removed five inspectors general from their posts over a three-month period..

Categories
Science

Climate Progressives Eye Treasury As Key Post If Biden Wins

The Treasury Department is emerging as a high-priority for climate progressives seeking to influence a Joe Biden administration, should he win the 2020 election.  

Two names top the climate activists’ lists: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sarah Bloom Raskin, a former Federal Reserve governor who served as the deputy Treasury secretary in President Barack Obama’s second term. 

It’s not hard to see why advocates are looking beyond who would run the Environmental Protection Agency under a President Biden. Transitioning the global economy away from fossil fuels at the speed needed to keep warming in a relatively safe range requires unprecedented changes to the flows of private and public capital. Forecasters have long warned that warming-fueled disasters and risky bets on fossil fuels’ long-term use could crash the economy. 

Shifts are already underway in the insurance sector. Banks and financiers, facing mounting pressure from activists and record numbers of billion-dollar climate disasters, also are starting to take the risk seriously. Advocates hope the defeat of President Donald Trump, who rejects the reality and seriousness of climate change, could pave the way to potentially reverse his administration’s wanton handouts to fossil fuel companies and reform the financial system before climate change sparks another chaotic market crash. 

“There is a real recognition that climate risk is a structural risk for the U.S. economy and the global economy, and you can’t escape that,” said Bracken Hendricks, a climate policy expert and former senior adviser to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate-focused bid for the Democratic nomination last year. “The West Coast is on fire, you’ve got a hurricane hitting New Orleans. These are real economic impacts on real businesses.”

Warren, whose years of stumping for financial reform fueled her rise as one of Biden’s foremost primary rivals, ran for president on a sweeping climate platform that included new Wall Street regulations to curb polluting investments and require increased disclosure of risky fossil fuel bets. 

But taking her out of the Senate would allow Massachusetts’ Republican Gov. Charlie Baker to fill her spot, at least until a special election could take place (which Bay State law requires within 145 to 160 days for such a vacancy). Choosing her would be seen as fiercely antagonistic to Wall Street, a position Biden seems reluctant to take. 

Raskin, 59, captured the climate world’s attention in March when she testified before the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and outlined what many see as potential first steps she’d take to address global warming if selected as the nation’s top financial regulator. 

Sarah Bloom Raskin, now a fellow at Duke University in North Carolina, is being floated as a possible pick for the Treasury s



Sarah Bloom Raskin, now a fellow at Duke University in North Carolina, is being floated as a possible pick for the Treasury secretary if Joe Biden wins the presidency.

She called for rules requiring investors to disclose the risk climate change poses to assets and said regulators should begin carrying out climate stress tests like those implemented by the Bank of England and the European Central Bank to assess how different disasters could destabilize financial institutions. In May, she criticized the Federal Reserve for propping up fossil fuel companies amid the coronavirus pandemic in a New York Times op-ed that called for public investments to “build toward a stronger economy with more jobs in innovative industries — not prop up and enrich dying ones.” 

Raskin declined an interview request. But her approach made her an apparent favorite of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, which ― having seen the presidential nomination go to a  centrist standard-bearer ― aims to stack a Biden administration with Cabinet officials willing to challenge corporate power and take aggressive steps to slash emissions. 

“We’d definitely support her,” Evan Weber, the political director of the Sunrise Movement, said of Raskin. “To the extent that Warren is an option, we’d support that, too.”

The Biden campaign, which has sought to tamp down speculation about appointments ahead of the election, did not respond to a request for comment. 

The Treasury Is Kind of A Big Deal

Much of the insurgent climate movement that emerged over the past few years grew out of campus-led efforts demanding financial institutions ― often university endowments ― divest of fossil fuel holdings. By the start of the Trump administration, those calls went mainstream, with governments as big as New York City vowing to start the process of pulling its $5 billion pension funds out of the oil, gas and coal business. Over the past year, that movement ramped up into a new campaign to pressure on banks and big investors to severely limit investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure. 

The effort has managed to score some early victories. In January, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, wrote in its annual letter to CEOs that it would be “increasingly disposed to vote against management and board directors when companies are not making sufficient progress on sustainability-related disclosures.” In July, Citigroup vowed to start measuring companies by their compatibility with the warming scenario outlined in the Paris climate accords. JPMorgan Chase made a similar commitment earlier this month. 

That lays the groundwork for significant changes at the Treasury. The Trump administration had disbanded the department’s Office of Environment and Energy and backtracked on efforts to limit financing for new coal projects. Last January, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin clashed with European Central Bank head Christine Lagarde over whether it was worth it to even try to predict the risks climate change posed to the financial sector. 

Increasing investments in research and building new, complex models should be a top priority for a Biden Treasury, according to a blog post this month by researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project, which also called for implementing climate stress tests as a critical first step. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), seen here stumping for Biden in Manchester, New Hampshire, is another potential Treasury pic



Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), seen here stumping for Biden in Manchester, New Hampshire, is another potential Treasury pick should the former vice president triumph in the Nov. 3 election.

A climate-focused Treasury secretary could lean heavily on the 2010 Dodd-Frank law that overhauled financial regulation in the wake of the Great Recession. The Financial Stability Oversight Council, established under the law to rally other financial regulators and synchronize rule changes to protect against the domino-effect of a market crash, could become a key venue to analyze the potential economic upheaval of climate change and create safeguards requiring investors and insurance companies to integrate that risk into their portfolios. 

“The Treasury secretary plays a very important coordinating role,” said Marcus Stanley, the policy director at the nonprofit Americans for Financial Reform. 

Taxing carbon dioxide emissions has become controversial, with economists and oil companies on one side saying it’s the most efficient way to reduce pollution and advocates and some policy experts on the other warning it would be politically unpopular and distract from more urgent government action required to keep warming within a safe range. But if the Biden administration priced carbon at some level, that policy would largely fall under the purview of the Treasury, Stanley said. 

The department could also, as the largest shareholder of the World Bank, pressure the institution to veer away from fossil fuels, a sector in which it has invested $12 billion since the 2015 Paris climate agreement was struck, according to estimates the German environmental group Urgewald released this month. Doing so could be part of a broader international mandate on climate. A report published Tuesday by the Democratic climate policy group Evergreen Action, which Raskin advised, called for the U.S. to join the Network on Greening the Financial System, a 69-member coalition of central banks, as part of an effort to “prevent a climate crash.” 

“Almost everything Treasury does carries enormous climate implications,” said Jeff Hauser, the Revolving Door Project’s executive director and co-author of the blog post. “Sarah Bloom Raskin gets that. You need somebody like Sarah Bloom Raskin in that job.” 

Other Candidates

Sunrise Movement has also floated Bill Clinton-era Labor Secretary Robert Reich, economist and former Columbia University Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz as possible picks for Treasury. 

Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard is being touted in the financial press as a top contender for Biden's Treasury s



Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard is being touted in the financial press as a top contender for Biden’s Treasury secretary. 

Another name touted in stories on Bloomberg and CNBC as a top contender is Lael Brainard, a governor at the Federal Reserve and former undersecretary at the Treasury during Obama’s first term.

Unlike Raskin or Warren, Brainard has been relatively quiet on climate. Last November, she gave a speech calling for the Fed “to study the implications of climate change for the economy and the financial system and to adapt our work accordingly.” But, in April, she voted in favor of allowing the Fed’s Main Street Lending Program to expand its criteria and make it easier to provide loans to fossil fuel companies struggling as oil prices plummeted this year. 

Moreover, Hauser said, Brainard carries political risks for Biden. She struggled to rein in Chinese currency manipulation during the Obama administration, opening the door to a soft-on-China critique from Republicans, and did little to halt corporate mergers that allowed companies to evade taxes by moving their headquarters overseas. 

Plus, Hauser noted, her husband is Kurt Campbell, the chairman and chief executive of the Asia Group, a multinational investor consultancy. 

“That’s a huge conflict of interest,” Hauser said. “He could divest, but I don’t know if he would do what he’d need to do.” 

Rather than run the Treasury, Brainard’s record of pushing liberal monetary policy that focuses on the risk of unemployment rather than inflation could make her a strong candidate for Fed chair. 

“Since unemployment rates over the past decade have been very real and the inflation fears have been fictitious, that’s a very real achievement,” Hauser said. “A lot of people have jobs today because of [her] leadership.”

Brainard declined HuffPost’s request for comment, and Campbell did not respond to HuffPost’s questions about whether he’d divest of Asia Group if his wife was nominated to a Cabinet post.

Hendricks, who has not taken a position on any potential nominees, said the Treasury job isn’t just about averting a climate-fueled financial disaster. 

“The Treasury secretary straddles both the management of the dangers of systemic risk and also the opportunity to activate positive job creation,” he said. “This is an incredibly important position.”

Categories
Science

Norwegian Researchers Are Collecting Sperm From COVID-19 Patients – Here’s Why

Sperm Sample

How does Covid-19 affect sperm and thus the next generation’s immune system? Researchers from the University of Bergen are collecting sperm to find the answer.

So far, 50 Covid-19 patients between 30 and 40 have delivered a sperm sample. Students are next in line. The plan is that participants will return after 12 months for more testing.

The project aims to see how the infection affects the development of the immune system and, follow-up studies will reveal how Covid-19 will affect the immune system of their future children.

Cecilie Svanes

Professor Cecilie Svanes at the University of Bergen is collecting sperm from Covid-19 patients. Credit: Eivind Senneset, University of Bergen

“The immune system is trained by infections of all kinds. We want to study how it is affected by Covid-19 and also if the infection has implications for future generation’s immune systems. That is why we decided to study sperm in addition to whole blood,” says Professor Cecilie Svanes, at Centre for International Health, University of Bergen. 

This is the first study of its kind on human beings. The Covid-19 pandemic gives researchers a new and unique opportunity to study immune-training and how the infection may have an effect on the next generation. Svanes is leading the study together with Professor Rebecca Cox at The Influenza Centre, University of Bergen. 

Infections train the immune system

All kinds of infections stimulate reactions in our immune system. The researchers want to find out if Covid-19 trains the immune system in a good or bad way. 

“Previous testing on animals have shown that infections can affect a future generation’s immune system in both a negative and a positive way,” Svanes says. 

Infections by micro-worms, so-called helminths, were found to have a positive effect on the immune system among mouse offspring. Sepsis, on the other hand, had a negative effect on the next generation of mice. 

The researchers in the study believe the link between infection, sperm, and offspring is the result of epigenetic changes, affecting how the hereditary material is “read and understood” and how the body builds the proteins involved in the immune system. The researchers are studying the messenger-RNA, which translates the DNA to proteins. 

“If one compares the hereditary material with a cookbook, the epigenetics is about which of the recipes are to be read. We believe that an infection can affect this process,” Svanes explains. 

Should maybe wait to have children

The researchers cannot wait for the covid-19 patients to have children, so that they can study any effects of the father’s infection on the offspring’s immune response. They study and compare sperm and blood from the patients with that taken from a large control group without Covid-19. 

The control group are participants in the large European RHINESSA-study, where the participants from seven different countries have been followed over 20 years. The database contains information on how lung health, asthma, allergies, and associated diseases have developed over time.

“If we find considerable negative changes in sperm, there is a possibility that we will advise people to wait with having children, for example, one year after a Covid-19 infection,” says Cecilie Svanes. 

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Science

NASA Astronaut Kate Rubins Casts Her Vote from Space

NASA Astronaut Kate Rubins Casts Her Vote

Credit: NASA

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins points to the International Space Station’s “voting booth” where she cast her vote from space this month. This is actually Rubins’ second time to vote from low-Earth orbit, having cast her first vote from space in 2016 when she was an Expedition 48-49 crew member.

Voting in space has been possible since 1997 when a bill passed to legally allow voting from space in Texas. Since then, several NASA astronauts have exercised this civic duty from orbit. Learn more about how astronauts cast their vote from orbit.

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Science

Trump’s USGS Chief Violated Whistleblower Protection Law, Inspector General Says

The head of the U.S. Geological Survey violated the federal whistleblower protection law when he retaliated against an agency employee who had filed a complaint about his conduct, according to a new report from the Interior Department’s internal watchdog.

The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General concluded that USGS Director James Reilly had the employee reassigned after learning of the individual’s complaint regarding Reilly’s conduct ― though the report does not detail the content of that initial complaint.

The scathing report, posted Thursday afternoon, comes two days after Trump’s Interior Department publicly boasted of its efforts to hire additional ethics staff in order to “remove the rotten stench from the blatant failure of the prior administration.” The agency has repeatedly blamed the Obama administration for its ethical shortfalls.

As Thursday’s report details, Reilly tried to convince investigators that the reassignment was due to the employee’s inability to work with another staff member and “negative influence” on the office ― claims that that agency staff directly contradicted.

“A witness also told us that Reilly had described the complainant as ‘evil’ without explaining why he believed this, and Reilly ultimately acknowledged that he said in front of others that the complainant had an ‘evil streak,’ or words to that effect, which he admitted ‘was a very poor choice of words,’” the report states.

Another witness told investigators about a meeting in which Reilly said the complainant had “weaponized the IG process” against him. And USGS employees reported that Reilly sought information about any other employee complaints against him so that he could “move them.”

Asked if he had any issues with the whistleblower, Reilly told investigators, “Well, there’s one very large one that’s sitting in this room. It’s this investigation, to be perfectly honest.”

The report does not name the whistleblower or any other USGS staffers interviewed as part of the probe.

“While the [Department of the Interior] provided some evidence of other motivations that may have played a role in its personnel decision, it failed to disentangle those motivations from the evidence of impermissible, retaliatory motive found during our investigation,” investigators wrote.

The Democratic chairs of the House oversight and natural resources committees responded to Thursday’s report by calling for Reilly’s immediate resignation or removal from office.

“Whistleblower retaliation does not get more clear cut than this,” Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) said in a joint statement. “Director Reilly made it a practice to seek out whistleblowers and target them for transfer. Anyone who uses official power to retaliate against whistleblowers — who help uncover waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement — is not fit to hold government office.”

In an emailed statement, Interior spokesman Nicholas Goodwin dismissed the report as “wrong in its legal and factual conclusions” and said it “attempts to turn the USGS human resources department’s reassignment of an administrative employee into a prohibited personnel practice.” He noted that the employee did not receive a reduction in pay or grade status.

USGS Director James Reilly is a former astronaut and oil-industry geologist. 



USGS Director James Reilly is a former astronaut and oil-industry geologist. 

This isn’t Reilly’s first controversy since he was confirmed as USGS director in April 2018. Recent press reports have uncovered how he intervened to halt, alter or delay research on critical scientific topics, including climate change, endangered species, and COVID-19. Reilly was also involved in manipulating agency data to promote logging. And in interviews with Wired, some employees at the USGS described his tenure there as hostile.

Under Trump, the Interior Department has been plagued by scandals. Former Interior chief Ryan Zinke resigned amid numerous investigations into his conduct, and several other high-ranking officials have been found to have violated federal ethics rules. Several IG probes are ongoing.

If past violations are any indication, Interior is unlikely to take action against Reilly.

The IG’s office released two scathing reports on Assistant Interior Secretary Douglas Domenech in the past year, finding that he used his office to benefit family members as well as his former employer, a Koch-linked think tank. Despite the seriousness of the findings, Domenech remains in his position atop the agency’s insular and international affairs office. Domenech is a top lieutenant and close personal friend of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

“For the DOI generally, I would be shocked if they do anything about this report” on Reilly, said Kevin Bell, senior counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a government watchdog group that advocates for whistleblowers. “If anything,” he added, “Reilly’s retaliation against whistleblowers only solidifies his Trumpian credentials.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told HuffPost via email that the report “shows that the risk of being a whistleblower has never been higher than during the Trump administration.”

The administration, he added, “has used every trick in the book, from demotions to presidential tweets, to bully whistleblowers into silence.”

Additional IG reports on the misdeeds of top Interior Department officials, including one who used his office to promote the policy priorities of the National Rifle Association, are expected in the near future. 

As HuffPost previously reported, Trump and his team have led a slow strangling of IGs across the federal government since taking office. That has ramped up earlier this year: Trump removed five inspectors general from their posts over a three-month period..

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Science

Climate Progressives Eye Treasury As Key Post If Biden Wins

The Treasury Department is emerging as a high-priority for climate progressives seeking to influence a Joe Biden administration, should he win the 2020 election.  

Two names top the climate activists’ lists: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sarah Bloom Raskin, a former Federal Reserve governor who served as the deputy Treasury secretary in President Barack Obama’s second term. 

It’s not hard to see why advocates are looking beyond who would run the Environmental Protection Agency under a President Biden. Transitioning the global economy away from fossil fuels at the speed needed to keep warming in a relatively safe range requires unprecedented changes to the flows of private and public capital. Forecasters have long warned that warming-fueled disasters and risky bets on fossil fuels’ long-term use could crash the economy. 

Shifts are already underway in the insurance sector. Banks and financiers, facing mounting pressure from activists and record numbers of billion-dollar climate disasters, also are starting to take the risk seriously. Advocates hope the defeat of President Donald Trump, who rejects the reality and seriousness of climate change, could pave the way to potentially reverse his administration’s wanton handouts to fossil fuel companies and reform the financial system before climate change sparks another chaotic market crash. 

“There is a real recognition that climate risk is a structural risk for the U.S. economy and the global economy, and you can’t escape that,” said Bracken Hendricks, a climate policy expert and former senior adviser to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate-focused bid for the Democratic nomination last year. “The West Coast is on fire, you’ve got a hurricane hitting New Orleans. These are real economic impacts on real businesses.”

Warren, whose years of stumping for financial reform fueled her rise as one of Biden’s foremost primary rivals, ran for president on a sweeping climate platform that included new Wall Street regulations to curb polluting investments and require increased disclosure of risky fossil fuel bets. 

But taking her out of the Senate would allow Massachusetts’ Republican Gov. Charlie Baker to fill her spot, at least until a special election could take place (which Bay State law requires within 145 to 160 days for such a vacancy). Choosing her would be seen as fiercely antagonistic to Wall Street, a position Biden seems reluctant to take. 

Raskin, 59, captured the climate world’s attention in March when she testified before the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and outlined what many see as potential first steps she’d take to address global warming if selected as the nation’s top financial regulator. 

Sarah Bloom Raskin, now a fellow at Duke University in North Carolina, is being floated as a possible pick for the Treasury s



Sarah Bloom Raskin, now a fellow at Duke University in North Carolina, is being floated as a possible pick for the Treasury secretary if Joe Biden wins the presidency.

She called for rules requiring investors to disclose the risk climate change poses to assets and said regulators should begin carrying out climate stress tests like those implemented by the Bank of England and the European Central Bank to assess how different disasters could destabilize financial institutions. In May, she criticized the Federal Reserve for propping up fossil fuel companies amid the coronavirus pandemic in a New York Times op-ed that called for public investments to “build toward a stronger economy with more jobs in innovative industries — not prop up and enrich dying ones.” 

Raskin declined an interview request. But her approach made her an apparent favorite of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, which ― having seen the presidential nomination go to a  centrist standard-bearer ― aims to stack a Biden administration with Cabinet officials willing to challenge corporate power and take aggressive steps to slash emissions. 

“We’d definitely support her,” Evan Weber, the political director of the Sunrise Movement, said of Raskin. “To the extent that Warren is an option, we’d support that, too.”

The Biden campaign, which has sought to tamp down speculation about appointments ahead of the election, did not respond to a request for comment. 

The Treasury Is Kind of A Big Deal

Much of the insurgent climate movement that emerged over the past few years grew out of campus-led efforts demanding financial institutions ― often university endowments ― divest of fossil fuel holdings. By the start of the Trump administration, those calls went mainstream, with governments as big as New York City vowing to start the process of pulling its $5 billion pension funds out of the oil, gas and coal business. Over the past year, that movement ramped up into a new campaign to pressure on banks and big investors to severely limit investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure. 

The effort has managed to score some early victories. In January, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, wrote in its annual letter to CEOs that it would be “increasingly disposed to vote against management and board directors when companies are not making sufficient progress on sustainability-related disclosures.” In July, Citigroup vowed to start measuring companies by their compatibility with the warming scenario outlined in the Paris climate accords. JPMorgan Chase made a similar commitment earlier this month. 

That lays the groundwork for significant changes at the Treasury. The Trump administration had disbanded the department’s Office of Environment and Energy and backtracked on efforts to limit financing for new coal projects. Last January, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin clashed with European Central Bank head Christine Lagarde over whether it was worth it to even try to predict the risks climate change posed to the financial sector. 

Increasing investments in research and building new, complex models should be a top priority for a Biden Treasury, according to a blog post this month by researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project, which also called for implementing climate stress tests as a critical first step. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), seen here stumping for Biden in Manchester, New Hampshire, is another potential Treasury pic



Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), seen here stumping for Biden in Manchester, New Hampshire, is another potential Treasury pick should the former vice president triumph in the Nov. 3 election.

A climate-focused Treasury secretary could lean heavily on the 2010 Dodd-Frank law that overhauled financial regulation in the wake of the Great Recession. The Financial Stability Oversight Council, established under the law to rally other financial regulators and synchronize rule changes to protect against the domino-effect of a market crash, could become a key venue to analyze the potential economic upheaval of climate change and create safeguards requiring investors and insurance companies to integrate that risk into their portfolios. 

“The Treasury secretary plays a very important coordinating role,” said Marcus Stanley, the policy director at the nonprofit Americans for Financial Reform. 

Taxing carbon dioxide emissions has become controversial, with economists and oil companies on one side saying it’s the most efficient way to reduce pollution and advocates and some policy experts on the other warning it would be politically unpopular and distract from more urgent government action required to keep warming within a safe range. But if the Biden administration priced carbon at some level, that policy would largely fall under the purview of the Treasury, Stanley said. 

The department could also, as the largest shareholder of the World Bank, pressure the institution to veer away from fossil fuels, a sector in which it has invested $12 billion since the 2015 Paris climate agreement was struck, according to estimates the German environmental group Urgewald released this month. Doing so could be part of a broader international mandate on climate. A report published Tuesday by the Democratic climate policy group Evergreen Action, which Raskin advised, called for the U.S. to join the Network on Greening the Financial System, a 69-member coalition of central banks, as part of an effort to “prevent a climate crash.” 

“Almost everything Treasury does carries enormous climate implications,” said Jeff Hauser, the Revolving Door Project’s executive director and co-author of the blog post. “Sarah Bloom Raskin gets that. You need somebody like Sarah Bloom Raskin in that job.” 

Other Candidates

Sunrise Movement has also floated Bill Clinton-era Labor Secretary Robert Reich, economist and former Columbia University Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz as possible picks for Treasury. 

Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard is being touted in the financial press as a top contender for Biden's Treasury s



Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard is being touted in the financial press as a top contender for Biden’s Treasury secretary. 

Another name touted in stories on Bloomberg and CNBC as a top contender is Lael Brainard, a governor at the Federal Reserve and former undersecretary at the Treasury during Obama’s first term.

Unlike Raskin or Warren, Brainard has been relatively quiet on climate. Last November, she gave a speech calling for the Fed “to study the implications of climate change for the economy and the financial system and to adapt our work accordingly.” But, in April, she voted in favor of allowing the Fed’s Main Street Lending Program to expand its criteria and make it easier to provide loans to fossil fuel companies struggling as oil prices plummeted this year. 

Moreover, Hauser said, Brainard carries political risks for Biden. She struggled to rein in Chinese currency manipulation during the Obama administration, opening the door to a soft-on-China critique from Republicans, and did little to halt corporate mergers that allowed companies to evade taxes by moving their headquarters overseas. 

Plus, Hauser noted, her husband is Kurt Campbell, the chairman and chief executive of the Asia Group, a multinational investor consultancy. 

“That’s a huge conflict of interest,” Hauser said. “He could divest, but I don’t know if he would do what he’d need to do.” 

Rather than run the Treasury, Brainard’s record of pushing liberal monetary policy that focuses on the risk of unemployment rather than inflation could make her a strong candidate for Fed chair. 

“Since unemployment rates over the past decade have been very real and the inflation fears have been fictitious, that’s a very real achievement,” Hauser said. “A lot of people have jobs today because of [her] leadership.”

Brainard declined HuffPost’s request for comment, and Campbell did not respond to HuffPost’s questions about whether he’d divest of Asia Group if his wife was nominated to a Cabinet post.

Hendricks, who has not taken a position on any potential nominees, said the Treasury job isn’t just about averting a climate-fueled financial disaster. 

“The Treasury secretary straddles both the management of the dangers of systemic risk and also the opportunity to activate positive job creation,” he said. “This is an incredibly important position.”

Categories
Science

Creepy Night Aboard the Space Station

Empty Space Suits ISS

Picture taken by European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst aboard the ISS in 2014. Credit: Alexander Gerst/ESA

Night aboard the International Space Station can seemingly look like every spooky sci-fi movie you’ve ever seen. This image shows two empty spacesuits seemingly colluding as most of the astronauts slept.

This is one of several images snapped by European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst during his first stay on the orbital laboratory in 2014. During his second stay, he served as Space Station Commander. He has spent nearly a year in space, having served two tours on the station.

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Science

Trump’s USGS Chief Violated Whistleblower Protection Law, Inspector General Says

The head of the U.S. Geological Survey violated the federal whistleblower protection law when he retaliated against an agency employee who had filed a complaint about his conduct, according to a new report from the Interior Department’s internal watchdog.

The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General concluded that USGS Director James Reilly had the employee reassigned after learning of the individual’s complaint regarding Reilly’s conduct ― though the report does not detail the content of that initial complaint.

The scathing report, posted Thursday afternoon, comes two days after Trump’s Interior Department publicly boasted of its efforts to hire additional ethics staff in order to “remove the rotten stench from the blatant failure of the prior administration.” The agency has repeatedly blamed the Obama administration for its ethical shortfalls.

As Thursday’s report details, Reilly tried to convince investigators that the reassignment was due to the employee’s inability to work with another staff member and “negative influence” on the office ― claims that that agency staff directly contradicted.

“A witness also told us that Reilly had described the complainant as ‘evil’ without explaining why he believed this, and Reilly ultimately acknowledged that he said in front of others that the complainant had an ‘evil streak,’ or words to that effect, which he admitted ‘was a very poor choice of words,’” the report states.

Another witness told investigators about a meeting in which Reilly said the complainant had “weaponized the IG process” against him. And USGS employees reported that Reilly sought information about any other employee complaints against him so that he could “move them.”

Asked if he had any issues with the whistleblower, Reilly told investigators, “Well, there’s one very large one that’s sitting in this room. It’s this investigation, to be perfectly honest.”

The report does not name the whistleblower or any other USGS staffers interviewed as part of the probe.

“While the [Department of the Interior] provided some evidence of other motivations that may have played a role in its personnel decision, it failed to disentangle those motivations from the evidence of impermissible, retaliatory motive found during our investigation,” investigators wrote.

The Democratic chairs of the House oversight and natural resources committees responded to Thursday’s report by calling for Reilly’s immediate resignation or removal from office.

“Whistleblower retaliation does not get more clear cut than this,” Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) said in a joint statement. “Director Reilly made it a practice to seek out whistleblowers and target them for transfer. Anyone who uses official power to retaliate against whistleblowers — who help uncover waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement — is not fit to hold government office.”

In an emailed statement, Interior spokesman Nicholas Goodwin dismissed the report as “wrong in its legal and factual conclusions” and said it “attempts to turn the USGS human resources department’s reassignment of an administrative employee into a prohibited personnel practice.” He noted that the employee did not receive a reduction in pay or grade status.

USGS Director James Reilly is a former astronaut and oil-industry geologist. 



USGS Director James Reilly is a former astronaut and oil-industry geologist. 

This isn’t Reilly’s first controversy since he was confirmed as USGS director in April 2018. Recent press reports have uncovered how he intervened to halt, alter or delay research on critical scientific topics, including climate change, endangered species, and COVID-19. Reilly was also involved in manipulating agency data to promote logging. And in interviews with Wired, some employees at the USGS described his tenure there as hostile.

Under Trump, the Interior Department has been plagued by scandals. Former Interior chief Ryan Zinke resigned amid numerous investigations into his conduct, and several other high-ranking officials have been found to have violated federal ethics rules. Several IG probes are ongoing.

If past violations are any indication, Interior is unlikely to take action against Reilly.

The IG’s office released two scathing reports on Assistant Interior Secretary Douglas Domenech in the past year, finding that he used his office to benefit family members as well as his former employer, a Koch-linked think tank. Despite the seriousness of the findings, Domenech remains in his position atop the agency’s insular and international affairs office. Domenech is a top lieutenant and close personal friend of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

“For the DOI generally, I would be shocked if they do anything about this report” on Reilly, said Kevin Bell, senior counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a government watchdog group that advocates for whistleblowers. “If anything,” he added, “Reilly’s retaliation against whistleblowers only solidifies his Trumpian credentials.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told HuffPost via email that the report “shows that the risk of being a whistleblower has never been higher than during the Trump administration.”

The administration, he added, “has used every trick in the book, from demotions to presidential tweets, to bully whistleblowers into silence.”

Additional IG reports on the misdeeds of top Interior Department officials, including one who used his office to promote the policy priorities of the National Rifle Association, are expected in the near future. 

As HuffPost previously reported, Trump and his team have led a slow strangling of IGs across the federal government since taking office. That has ramped up earlier this year: Trump removed five inspectors general from their posts over a three-month period..

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Science

Climate Progressives Eye Treasury As Key Post If Biden Wins

The Treasury Department is emerging as a high-priority for climate progressives seeking to influence a Joe Biden administration, should he win the 2020 election.  

Two names top the climate activists’ lists: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sarah Bloom Raskin, a former Federal Reserve governor who served as the deputy Treasury secretary in President Barack Obama’s second term. 

It’s not hard to see why advocates are looking beyond who would run the Environmental Protection Agency under a President Biden. Transitioning the global economy away from fossil fuels at the speed needed to keep warming in a relatively safe range requires unprecedented changes to the flows of private and public capital. Forecasters have long warned that warming-fueled disasters and risky bets on fossil fuels’ long-term use could crash the economy. 

Shifts are already underway in the insurance sector. Banks and financiers, facing mounting pressure from activists and record numbers of billion-dollar climate disasters, also are starting to take the risk seriously. Advocates hope the defeat of President Donald Trump, who rejects the reality and seriousness of climate change, could pave the way to potentially reverse his administration’s wanton handouts to fossil fuel companies and reform the financial system before climate change sparks another chaotic market crash. 

“There is a real recognition that climate risk is a structural risk for the U.S. economy and the global economy, and you can’t escape that,” said Bracken Hendricks, a climate policy expert and former senior adviser to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate-focused bid for the Democratic nomination last year. “The West Coast is on fire, you’ve got a hurricane hitting New Orleans. These are real economic impacts on real businesses.”

Warren, whose years of stumping for financial reform fueled her rise as one of Biden’s foremost primary rivals, ran for president on a sweeping climate platform that included new Wall Street regulations to curb polluting investments and require increased disclosure of risky fossil fuel bets. 

But taking her out of the Senate would allow Massachusetts’ Republican Gov. Charlie Baker to fill her spot, at least until a special election could take place (which Bay State law requires within 145 to 160 days for such a vacancy). Choosing her would be seen as fiercely antagonistic to Wall Street, a position Biden seems reluctant to take. 

Raskin, 59, captured the climate world’s attention in March when she testified before the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and outlined what many see as potential first steps she’d take to address global warming if selected as the nation’s top financial regulator. 

Sarah Bloom Raskin, now a fellow at Duke University in North Carolina, is being floated as a possible pick for the Treasury s



Sarah Bloom Raskin, now a fellow at Duke University in North Carolina, is being floated as a possible pick for the Treasury secretary if Joe Biden wins the presidency.

She called for rules requiring investors to disclose the risk climate change poses to assets and said regulators should begin carrying out climate stress tests like those implemented by the Bank of England and the European Central Bank to assess how different disasters could destabilize financial institutions. In May, she criticized the Federal Reserve for propping up fossil fuel companies amid the coronavirus pandemic in a New York Times op-ed that called for public investments to “build toward a stronger economy with more jobs in innovative industries — not prop up and enrich dying ones.” 

Raskin declined an interview request. But her approach made her an apparent favorite of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, which ― having seen the presidential nomination go to a  centrist standard-bearer ― aims to stack a Biden administration with Cabinet officials willing to challenge corporate power and take aggressive steps to slash emissions. 

“We’d definitely support her,” Evan Weber, the political director of the Sunrise Movement, said of Raskin. “To the extent that Warren is an option, we’d support that, too.”

The Biden campaign, which has sought to tamp down speculation about appointments ahead of the election, did not respond to a request for comment. 

The Treasury Is Kind of A Big Deal

Much of the insurgent climate movement that emerged over the past few years grew out of campus-led efforts demanding financial institutions ― often university endowments ― divest of fossil fuel holdings. By the start of the Trump administration, those calls went mainstream, with governments as big as New York City vowing to start the process of pulling its $5 billion pension funds out of the oil, gas and coal business. Over the past year, that movement ramped up into a new campaign to pressure on banks and big investors to severely limit investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure. 

The effort has managed to score some early victories. In January, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, wrote in its annual letter to CEOs that it would be “increasingly disposed to vote against management and board directors when companies are not making sufficient progress on sustainability-related disclosures.” In July, Citigroup vowed to start measuring companies by their compatibility with the warming scenario outlined in the Paris climate accords. JPMorgan Chase made a similar commitment earlier this month. 

That lays the groundwork for significant changes at the Treasury. The Trump administration had disbanded the department’s Office of Environment and Energy and backtracked on efforts to limit financing for new coal projects. Last January, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin clashed with European Central Bank head Christine Lagarde over whether it was worth it to even try to predict the risks climate change posed to the financial sector. 

Increasing investments in research and building new, complex models should be a top priority for a Biden Treasury, according to a blog post this month by researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project, which also called for implementing climate stress tests as a critical first step. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), seen here stumping for Biden in Manchester, New Hampshire, is another potential Treasury pic



Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), seen here stumping for Biden in Manchester, New Hampshire, is another potential Treasury pick should the former vice president triumph in the Nov. 3 election.

A climate-focused Treasury secretary could lean heavily on the 2010 Dodd-Frank law that overhauled financial regulation in the wake of the Great Recession. The Financial Stability Oversight Council, established under the law to rally other financial regulators and synchronize rule changes to protect against the domino-effect of a market crash, could become a key venue to analyze the potential economic upheaval of climate change and create safeguards requiring investors and insurance companies to integrate that risk into their portfolios. 

“The Treasury secretary plays a very important coordinating role,” said Marcus Stanley, the policy director at the nonprofit Americans for Financial Reform. 

Taxing carbon dioxide emissions has become controversial, with economists and oil companies on one side saying it’s the most efficient way to reduce pollution and advocates and some policy experts on the other warning it would be politically unpopular and distract from more urgent government action required to keep warming within a safe range. But if the Biden administration priced carbon at some level, that policy would largely fall under the purview of the Treasury, Stanley said. 

The department could also, as the largest shareholder of the World Bank, pressure the institution to veer away from fossil fuels, a sector in which it has invested $12 billion since the 2015 Paris climate agreement was struck, according to estimates the German environmental group Urgewald released this month. Doing so could be part of a broader international mandate on climate. A report published Tuesday by the Democratic climate policy group Evergreen Action, which Raskin advised, called for the U.S. to join the Network on Greening the Financial System, a 69-member coalition of central banks, as part of an effort to “prevent a climate crash.” 

“Almost everything Treasury does carries enormous climate implications,” said Jeff Hauser, the Revolving Door Project’s executive director and co-author of the blog post. “Sarah Bloom Raskin gets that. You need somebody like Sarah Bloom Raskin in that job.” 

Other Candidates

Sunrise Movement has also floated Bill Clinton-era Labor Secretary Robert Reich, economist and former Columbia University Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz as possible picks for Treasury. 

Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard is being touted in the financial press as a top contender for Biden's Treasury s



Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard is being touted in the financial press as a top contender for Biden’s Treasury secretary. 

Another name touted in stories on Bloomberg and CNBC as a top contender is Lael Brainard, a governor at the Federal Reserve and former undersecretary at the Treasury during Obama’s first term.

Unlike Raskin or Warren, Brainard has been relatively quiet on climate. Last November, she gave a speech calling for the Fed “to study the implications of climate change for the economy and the financial system and to adapt our work accordingly.” But, in April, she voted in favor of allowing the Fed’s Main Street Lending Program to expand its criteria and make it easier to provide loans to fossil fuel companies struggling as oil prices plummeted this year. 

Moreover, Hauser said, Brainard carries political risks for Biden. She struggled to rein in Chinese currency manipulation during the Obama administration, opening the door to a soft-on-China critique from Republicans, and did little to halt corporate mergers that allowed companies to evade taxes by moving their headquarters overseas. 

Plus, Hauser noted, her husband is Kurt Campbell, the chairman and chief executive of the Asia Group, a multinational investor consultancy. 

“That’s a huge conflict of interest,” Hauser said. “He could divest, but I don’t know if he would do what he’d need to do.” 

Rather than run the Treasury, Brainard’s record of pushing liberal monetary policy that focuses on the risk of unemployment rather than inflation could make her a strong candidate for Fed chair. 

“Since unemployment rates over the past decade have been very real and the inflation fears have been fictitious, that’s a very real achievement,” Hauser said. “A lot of people have jobs today because of [her] leadership.”

Brainard declined HuffPost’s request for comment, and Campbell did not respond to HuffPost’s questions about whether he’d divest of Asia Group if his wife was nominated to a Cabinet post.

Hendricks, who has not taken a position on any potential nominees, said the Treasury job isn’t just about averting a climate-fueled financial disaster. 

“The Treasury secretary straddles both the management of the dangers of systemic risk and also the opportunity to activate positive job creation,” he said. “This is an incredibly important position.”

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Science

Book Excerpt from Every Life is On Fire

In an environment that looks random, but isn’t, it becomes particularly important to ask what it would mean behaviorally for a clump of driven matter to exhibit an emergent adaptation behavior in the presence of a subtle influence. If inexorable physical principles are biasing the gradual exploration of shape space, so that things have a specialized matching to a pattern whose nonrandomness is hard to discern, that means the dynamics of the matter in question has had to “figure out” something difficult about how to detect the pattern. If we had been given the task of discerning the pattern ourselves, either we would have had to engage in some form of intuition or abstract mathematical manipulation, or we would have had to write a computer program that could use numerical calculation to substitute for those activities. In any event, whether human or artificial, we’d be inclined to say some kind of intelligence was being brought to bear. Here, the question that suddenly confronts us is whether, in the absence of any brain, equation, or algorithm, an emergently fine-tuned assembly of particles can fairly be said to be doing something called computing—or better yet, learning.

Posing the question might be likened to asking whether a pond that refreezes after being partly melted is healing or repairing itself. Clearly, for such primitive examples, language like this is loaded and misleading—and the same goes for saying that when a ball rolls down a hillside it is “learning” to lower its altitude. The case we are not considering, though, in leveling that critique is one where optimizing one’s relationship to the environment is a much less generic kind of task, and in which the environment is assumed to have a regularity that is not at all obvious. When a collection of matter we have built with our own ingenuity to be a computer behaves in a way that spits out an accurate prediction of a complex signal, we call that computation. If a bunch of particles whose structure we did not design nevertheless engages in behavior that is just as behaviorally successful with respect to the task of prediction, we may well want to refrain from saying it is computing. But if so, we still have to acknowledge that it is doing something just as useful as what computation does.

Consider, for example, the work of Weishun Zhong, David Schwab, and Arvind Murugan carried out at the University of Chicago, where they simulated the equilibrium self-assembly of many grayscale-shaded particles whose interparticle forces had been designed to arrange the particles as pixels in multiple recognizable photographic images (such as a picture of Einstein). The authors demonstrated that when such a soup of sticky building blocks got exposed to fragmentary partial remnants of the original image (through some patterned, but static, external forces), the collective was able to reconstruct the whole image by leveraging what little information the fragments contained to select the matching image state and assemble into it. From one perspective, the physics of what went on in this study was always only a very high-dimensional version of a ball rolling downhill (with the fragmentary image clues acting as a way of tilting the energy landscape to help the ball roll the right way). Yet, from another perspective, remembering and reconstructing an image sounds like something useful that we make software do for us. Moving away from thermal equilibrium, in principle, should only expand the playbook available to us in terms of the types of behaviors physically allowed to occur in the system. This possibility immediately raises the question of whether self-organizing, nonequilibrium, many-particle systems might be coaxed into doing various other things that computer programs are good for.

Musings such as these may sound far-fetched, but there are both theoretical and empirical reasons to give them serious consideration. In simulation, we can study the behavior of “messy” many-body systems that we subject to forcing patterns much subtler than simple oscillations, and the results so far show significant promise. Random spin glasses are materials built out of collections of atoms arrayed together in such a way that they interact with their neighbors like tiny bar magnets. Each atom has a north-south arrow that results from the behavior of its electrons, and any one arrow can feel the influence of the other arrows of neighboring atoms. What makes these materials random is that there can be disorder in how the arrows couple: one pair of neighbors might feel a force trying to align their arrows north to north, whereas another pair might be trying to anti-align and match up north to south. In a big jumble of such atoms, it’s very hard to satisfy all the forces at once, because the same atom might be pointing up as the result of the influence of one neighbor, but this could be against the direction of a force being exerted by another neighbor. Accordingly, the story of when a given arrow flips, as the system tries to lower its energy, can be complicated and unpredictable.

Experiments on spin glasses have already shown that they exhibit intriguing memory effects: if you cool one down with an external bath whose gradually dropping temperature plateaus for a while at a few different temperatures you have chosen, then the magnetic properties of the material are detectably different at those same chosen temperatures when you warm things back up, as though an echo of the original treatment is stored in the configurations of all the arrows. MIT mathematics graduate student Jacob Gold and I picked up on this idea and simulated a random spin glass with a “barcoded” environment that varied over time. In addition to the forces acting between atoms, roughly half the atoms were made to feel external forces randomly pushing some arrows up and others down. After a fixed duration, a new set of random forces was generated (i.e., a new barcode), and the configuration of the arrows in the simulated material was allowed to evolve over time.

If the simulation always keeps showing the atoms new random barcodes pushing some arrows up and others down, then the behavior is largely indistinguishable from random thermal fluctuations at a higher temperature than the ambient environment—in other words, it just acts like friction is heating it up. However, things get remarkably different when a limited number of barcodes get shuffled into a deck and then reused over and over again. At each moment, the current barcode is randomly selected without any particular order, but over a longer stretch the same small set of barcodes recurs.

The first—now perhaps unsurprising—thing to notice is that the rate of energy absorption drops over time. Though the barcoded forces initially “look” random to the material, eventually it adapts to the pattern and finds a configuration that absorbs less energy from its environment. What happens, though, if we suddenly introduce a new barcode, never seen before in the history of the system dynamics? Naturally, the rate of energy absorption spikes upward, because the system has not yet adapted to a pattern that includes this novel environmental state as a possibility.

Let us recap: A messy collection of atoms gets shown a bunch of different forces from the environment, each described with its own unique barcode. Its energy absorption adapts and drops, and now will spike if we poke the system in a new way in which it has not yet been poked. Inadvertently, perhaps, we have built what one might call a novelty detector.

The state of the system after it has adapted embodies an implicit prediction about the future, namely: I expect to see this, this, or this, but not that. In essence, then, the mere fact that these atoms have been poked in a patterned way leads them into a state that appears to have learned to tell the precise difference between something familiar and something new and unexpected. And, interestingly, if we were to design a computer program to make that kind of judgment for us, we might be inclined to call it machine learning.

The past decade has seen tremendous growth in the power and diversity of so-called machine-learning technologies that exhibit flexible capability for discovering accurate ways of computationally modeling complex relationships previously thought to be exclusively the province of the human mind. Facial recognition and language processing are two of the most famous examples, but the common principle in many of these applications is that a long list of numerical parameters describing some way of mapping computational inputs to outputs are trained using large data sets (whether pictures of faces, a corpus of text, or whatever else). In practice, this means that a computer algorithm is trying to search through a very high-dimensional parameter space in order to find a special and exceptional choice of parameters that will enable the computational model to exhibit high-quality matching to the data used for training. This search is typically carried out by programming the parameter coordinates to traverse partly random but biased paths that tend to go downhill over time in a “landscape” whose altitude is defined by some measure of error generated by using the current parameters to map inputs to outputs.

If any of this sounds familiar, it is because the parallels between machine learning of this kind and the mechanism for dissipative adaptation we described in the previous chapter are numerous and significant. An assemblage of many particles has a shape or structure that is described by a high-dimensional space of possible arrangements, much the same way that a machine-learning training algorithm has a high-dimensional space of modeling parameters that determine the way it maps inputs to outputs. A machine learner is trying, over time, to change its parameters so as to reduce an error function that measures how badly it models relationships in the training data; a driven mechanical system that is gradually reducing its rate of energy absorption does so by intricately changing its shape so as to modify the way it responds to and moves with the external forcing. Moreover, just as a machine learner maps observed inputs to calculated outputs, a driven mechanical system maps the input of external forces into the outputs of dynamical behavior. Does this mean we want to say that all driven, many-particle assemblies are doing a form of machine learning? Probably not, unless we expand the definition of the term excessively. However, in a side-by-side comparison, it is apparent that the mathematical structure of what is going on in each case is similar on multiple scores, which suggests there may be an as-yet-unexplored spectrum of possibilities that could lie somewhere in between these two poles, and look like an evolving jumble of building blocks that compute something useful as they disperse and reassemble.

Excerpted from Every Life Is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things by Jeremy England. Copyright © 2020 by Jeremy England. Available from Basic Books.