Part 1 of two-part Interview: Entrepreneur Elon Musk Talks About his Background in Physics
Elon Musk, the founder or co-founder of companies such as PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors, studied physics and economics at the University of Pennsylvania. In part one of an exclusive two-part interview with Alaina G. Levine, Musk discusses how he bases his thought processes on first principles, the benefits he gets from having studied physics and why he's proud to call himself a nerd.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
L:You had stated in an interview recently that one of your pieces of advice for people looking to innovate is to "study physics and learn how to reason from first principles rather than reason by analogy." Can you expand on what you meant by that?
M: Of necessity, physics had to develop a framework of thinking that would allow understanding counter-intuitive elements of reality. Something like quantum physics is not very intuitive, and in order to make progress, physics essentially evolved a framework of thinking that was very effective for coming to correct answers that are not obvious. And in order to do this, it requires quite a lot of mental exertion. One cannot conduct one's everyday life reasoning from first principles; it would just require too much mental energy. So I think you have to operate most of your life with reasoning by analogy or essentially copying other people with minor variations. But if you are trying to break new ground and be really innovative, that's where you have to apply first-principle thinking and try to identify the most fundamental truths in any particular arena and you reason up from there. This requires quite a bit of mental exertion and I can give you some examples of how this helps one in the rocket business.
M: Any given rocket technology should be evaluated by to what degree does it improve the cost of space transport. Historically, [if you look at] how much rockets cost, you'd see that the trend line has been pretty flat and in the United States, it's actually gotten worse over time. If you just reason by analogy, you'd say that's just the way things are. But it's not. The first-principle approach would be to ask what materials is a rocket made of and how much do those materials cost. When we look at that we say wow — in terms of raw materials cost, it's a few percent of what the price of a rocket is. So there must be something wrong here and people are being pretty silly. If we can be clever, we can make a much lower cost rocket.
L:How do you go through your day? Are you constantly trying to think from first principles but in a certain respect you have to stop yourself because it does take so much mental exertion?
M: I'd love to say that I spend most of my days thinking from first principles, but unfortunately I have too many separate things to do, so I have to reserve mental energy only for the things that are very important, like trying to come up with some technological breakthrough that is quite pressing, or sometimes the business is in a bit of a jam and I have to come up with some creative solution. Sometimes it happens without me trying all too hard, in that I'll wake up in the morning and have some sort of epiphany in the shower (laughs). It's a cliché but it happens quite a lot. I guess subconsciously my mind's been thinking about it and several hours later after waking up it kind of pops into the conscious mind.
L:Why did you choose to study physics?
M: I was really curious to understand how the universe works. And that's really what physics is about — trying to understand how the universe really works at a fundamental level. At one point, I was thinking about a career in physics and trying to work on physics problems, but as I looked ahead, I thought I might get stuck in some bureaucracy at a collider and then that collider could get canceled like the Super Conducting Supercollider and then that would suck (laughs). That would really be very frustrating.
L:So you were already thinking ahead: you loved physics, you wanted to study it so you could understand the universe, but you were thinking you were not going to be a physicist.
M: For a while, I did think that I wanted to be that. I had an existential crisis when I was 12 or 13, and [was] trying to figure out what does it all mean, why are we here, is it all meaningless, that sort of thing. I came to the conclusion that the best thing we can do is try to improve the scope and scale of consciousness and gain greater enlightenment which will in turn allow us to ask better and better questions, because obviously the universe is the answer, so what is the question? All questions, I suppose.
L:It's interesting to me that you chose to study physics so you could understand the universe but yet at the same time I understand that you were also taking business classes, so perhaps you were thinking about enlightenment from perhaps an entrepreneurial point of view early on?
M: I was trying to figure out what I would do and I was concerned that if I didn't study business, I would be forced to work for someone who did study business, (laughs) and they would know some special things that I didn't know. That didn't sound good, so I wanted to make sure that I knew those things too. (Laughs) I can't say I had a particular affinity for the business students quite frankly. I liked hanging out with my physics cohorts. I liked the arts and sciences people more. I don't know if you should print that. (Laughs). I wasn't the biggest fan of my business classmates. I preferred the arts and sciences.
L:Would you consider yourself a nerd?
M: I certainly was a nerd and probably am still a nerd in large part. If you had a list of all the things that nerds would do, man, I've done 'em all. I played many hours of Dungeon and Dragons with paper and dice.
L:Did you dress up?
M: (Laughs) I did actually dress up on a couple of occasions, but not at home. There were these Dungeon and Dragons tournaments…
L:Yes of course. I know them well.
M: ...it was awesome. I love those things. They were so great. I grew up in South Africa and it really was a little community so I had quite limited outlet for [these types of activities]…I didn't know any other kids who wrote software. I had to coerce my friends into playing Dungeons and Dragons. Some of them liked it but I had to wheedle a lot of them into it, because we needed four people in our d and d group to go into the tournaments. So I played video games, wrote computer software, and I had pants with a draw string. (Laughs) It was pretty bad actually. It was tough to get a date. And I did a lot of other stuff: built a radio, created handmade rockets. In South Africa we didn't have any of these rockets, so I had to figure out the ingredients for rocket propellant and then mix it with a mortar and pestle, put it in a tube and create rockets–with mixed results.
L:I think you got it — you can check off everything for a nerd. M: (Laughs) Nerd Master 3000.
In the next issue of APS News, read Part 2 of the interview and learn why Musk thinks MBAs can be a mistake, what it will cost to cruise to Mars, and how his Tesla Model S is making history.
Alaina G. Levine is a science writer and President of Quantum Success Solutions, a science career and professional development consulting enterprise. Her new book on networking strategies for scientists and engineers will be published by Wiley in 2014. She can be contacted through her website or via twitter @AlainaGLevine.