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Inside the Oval Office With Obama, Summers and Geithner

Question: Is this a sea change in how government works?

Steven Rattner:  No, I think it was an appropriate reaction to an extraordinary set of circumstances.  I think by and large, and you see that people like myself now are leaving the government and the more traditional command structure remaining in place.  I think it was just a function of... a reflection of the extraordinary circumstances, much the way FDR brought in many special advisors during the Great Depression and in the aftermath.  So I think as the economy recovers, we have an infrastructure in the government that’s well-equipped to deal with a more normal set of economic circumstances. 

Question: What role has Larry Summers served in the White House?

Steven Rattner: I am the self-appointed President of the Larry Summers fan club.  I think Larry Summers is fantastic.  I’ve known him for 15-ish years, I’ve worked for him in Washington now and I think there’s  nobody I’ve ever encountered with a more interesting mind, a more interesting approach to problems, a willingness to work harder, and more committed to public service. And so I think his stepping down is unfortunate.  De Gaulle once said that the graveyards are filled with the bodies of indispensable men—and so nobody is irreplaceable in this world—but he has very, very big shoes to fill.  I think its an unfortunate symbol that he stepped down of some people perceive as some kind of shift away from what I would call centrist economics, which I think is the right path for the country, and I think we’ll all be watching closely to see who the President puts in his place and what kind of a message that sends about where the Administration is going.  But if they could clone Larry Summers and put him back in that chair, I think it would be a wonderful thing. 

Question: Should Tim Geithner stay at his post as Treasury secretary?

Steven Rattner: Tim Geithner is also a terrific public servant and a very smart guy and a clear thinker.  There were some rocky early days, not just for him, but for the entire economic team, in large part because the problems were so great that people really were skeptical, I guess, to a degree, about what could be done.  But I think Tim has clearly settled into the job, I think he’s found his pace, I think he’s found his voice, and I think he’s emerged as the unquestioned leader of the economic team and he should definitely stay.

Question: Describe President Obama’s leadership style?

Steven Rattner: I found it very much on a par with some of the best CEOs who I have ever worked with.  He was decisive when his advisors had differences, he was supportive, when they didn’t have differences, he was willing to spend the time and dig into problems, many of which were not in his normal walk of life, and spend the time that was needed, but he didn’t dawdle over them.  He was a decider in the end.  And I thought he made all the right decisions and really was determined to get it right.  So I’m a big fan of the President.  

Question: What surprised you about working in government?

Steven Rattner:  I’d spent enough time around Washington and had certainly read and heard enough about Washington that I went in with pretty low expectations about government.  I went in assuming this completely impenetrable bureaucracy filled with career people who went home every day at 4:00 and really didn’t care that much.  And I was pleasantly surprised. 

The power... it is difficult to get the government to move forward. It is a collaborative, consultative type of process and there is a lot of red tape, as there has to be with an organization of that size.  But when the government decides to do something, the power it has and the ability to affect a change for the good is extraordinary.  We were able to deploy $82 billion into these companies and restructure them fundamentally in a way that we never could have done in the private sector. 

And secondly, I would say that contrary to my impression, perhaps, there are many, many talented career people in the government.  There are some who go home at 4:00 and who just view it as a way to get a paycheck, but I was really quite amazed at how many career people there were who didn’t get paid overtime, who were never going to be Secretary of the Treasury or President of the United States, who were there until all hours, on weekends, and really committed to doing the best job they could.  So I came away with very good feelings about government in general, I came away with less-good feelings about Congress, which I found to be quasi-dysfunctional and as much a part of the problem as part of the solution.  And I think that was very disappointing as I got to see that.

Recorded September 23, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown

The former "auto czar" says working in government requires a much more collaborative, consultative, compromising management style than working in the private sector.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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