Elon Musk in conversation

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A packed lecture theatre waiting for Elon Musk at AGU

I’m currently at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, a conference of over 24,000 geo-scientists in San Francisco. The presidential forum this year was delivered by Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, Tesla Motors and chairman of SolarCity. The queue to his talk was massive, winding around the building many times over, and was perhaps the geekiest line I’ve been in since camping overnight in a CERN corridor to attend the lecture announcing the discovery of the Higgs Boson.

After an introduction in which the incredulity of one man being able to be chief technological officer of a company leading the field in electric automotives and energy storage AND make the first commercial space craft to reach orbit and safely return AND address the problem of providing solar energy was acknowledged with a collective giggle of appreciation from the hundreds of scientists (many of them eminent) in the audience, and mention of his commitment to open source by opening the Tesla patents drew a spontaneous round of applause, Elon joined AGU president Margret Leinen on stage for a question and answer session.

I’ll talk here about the parts of that conversation that stood out to me. This is by no means a full account of the forum, and what I write is my own interpretation of what I heard (and what notes I could write legibly in a darkened lecture theatre), not a word-for-word record of what was said.

For me, one of the most inspiring moments of the session, was when Elon was asked about his motivation for starting SpaceX, especially as he said he did not expect to see self-sustaining life on Mars within his lifetime. He explained his philosphical basis to us by referencing Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, where the universe is said to be the answer to the meaning of life, and our job is to figure out the question. Elon talked about how our understanding of the universe will grow proportionally with human civilization, and that human civilization has a better chance of continuing if we become a multi-planet species. As a single planet species we run the risk of being wiped out in a mass-extinction event. Branching out to new planets will undoubtedly lead us to discovering and using new science, asking more questions, and discovering more about the universe.

Both Elon and Margret had been at last week’s climate summit in Paris. The achievements of the negotiators there in bringing about universal recognition of human-caused climate change and the need for collective action to lessen it’s impacts was mentioned and applauded. In general discussion of climate change and sustainibility Elon mentioned carbon tax. He compared not paying carbon tax to not paying for garbage collection. Ruminating on this point, he talked of money as a system to represent values, and how, by not taxing carbon emissions we are encouraging bad behaviour (dumping carbon dioxide in our atmosphere). Nuclear power was mentioned, with Elon stressing that there’s nothing wrong with nuclear power (fission or fusion) when produced in areas not prone to natural disasters, but that he thought it would turn out to be more economically viable to use “indirect fusion” i.e. solar power. If you combine this with development of batteries (something he referred to as one of the hardest technological problems out there, and one in need of much more research), high voltage power lines North-South and East-West, and the use of hydropower in the northern hemisphere you could power the whole world. He mentioned how solar power from just one corner of Utah and Nevada could provide enough energy to power the whole of the US.

Elon made a very salient point about transitioning to a sustainable economy, which is that the transition is a certainty (given that the only alternative is eventual collapse of civilization) and the only question is when and what proportion of carbon are we going to leave in the ground instead of pumping into our atmosphere. Whilst obvious, I appreciated being reminded to think of it in this way, and liked the frankness with which he closed this part of the conversation, saying it’s all just a question of pace and therefore we should terminate this experiment [of taking carbon out of the ground and putting it into the atmosphere] as soon as possible.

Throughout the forum, Elon came across (to me at least) as under-spoken and humble. If you didn’t know who he was, you could easily have mistaken him for any other reticent, slightly awkward physicist at this conference. He laughed at himself when he made the analogy of carbon tax and paying for garbage collection, as he’d previously been talking about how, to do something new you have to do a first principles analysis and abandon the analogies, on which we rely everyday as computational short-cuts to understand and process information. In giving his philosophical rational of space exploration he couldn’t help but grin at the end and exclaim “and it’s a great adventure”, taking on that look a skier gets when eyeing up an untouched bit of powder to head down, or any one of us scientists when we get a new piece of equipment in the lab. He was quick, in his assessment of the various merits of solar vs direct nuclear power, to state that this was just his opinion and that he could well be wrong.

The discussion turned to education and future areas of research. When asked what he thought students should focus on to prepare themselves to address the challenges humanity is facing now and will face in the future, Elon mentioned software engineering, physics, economics and critical thinking (how to know whether or not to believe something). He advocated research and development of any kind of energy production that can continue long into the future without doing any harm to the world and thought that electrification of transport in general, and of heating and cooling needs more people’s attention. When pressed on this last point, from the stand point of pollution for fossil fuels in power stations and directly in the combustion engine, he talked about how energy can be more efficiently extracted from any source in a power station than in individual cars (this economy of scale approach is something he’s actively employing also in his SolarCity project) even when transmission and charging losses are taken into account.

Overall it was very inspiring to listen to, as someone else at the conference put it, a person who devotes themselves to solving the world’s biggest problems and just gets on a does it. It was also nice to see how someone who has made such a positive impact on the world has so much respect for the sciences, talks with more common sense than charisma and who (along with the admirable chairing of Margret Leinen) made it easy for us, as a geo-sciences community, to relate to him.

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Tesla car in the AGU foyer
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