Elon Musk

When Elon Musk talks …

When Elon Musk talks, smart cookies listen. Fortunately for us all, Elon Musk decided to talk to Tim Urban of the legendary WaitButWhy.com. And Tim was more than happy to listen.

I understand his excitement because I have been a fan of Elon Musk for some time now.

Tim recounts the tale of how he was contacted by someone who said she works with Elon Musk offering him an interview with the man himself, his initial reaction to this amazing offer, and how that phone call resulted in an invitation to California, and a one-on-one interview with Elon Musk.

Tim turned that visit and conversation into a fascinating four-part series.

Part 1, titled Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man,’ reveals the three issues Elon Musk thinks most often about:

  1. the safety of artificial intelligence;
  2. sustainable energy; and
  3. humans becoming a multi-planetary species.

The last issue appears to particularly trouble Elon Musk in the context of

  • the Fermi paradox, the apparent contradiction between the high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilisations, such as by the Drake equation, and the lack of evidence for such civilizations; and
  • the Great Filter, a term which refers to something that may prevent intelligent civilisations from persisting, which may explain the Fermi paradox.

If we are a civilisation that passed through the Great Filter, and we have no way of knowing whether that is so or not, the more time passes by, the more dire the situation becomes for the survival of humanity.

‘If we are very rare, we better get to the multi-planet situation fast, because if civilization is tenuous, then we must do whatever we can to ensure that our already-weak probability of surviving is improved dramatically,’ Tim quotes Elon Musk.

Part 2, titled How Tesla Will Change The World,’ takes a closer look at Tesla. There would be little utility in summarising Tim’s in-depth look at the technology. Do yourself a favour and read the original piece.

Part 3, titled How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars,’ returns to the concept of an inter-planetary humanity, in the context of SpaceX and the possibility of the colonisation of Mars. Be warned, this is a very, very long, but immensely engaging read, starting with a brief history of space, humanity and space exploration.

It reveals Elon Musk is serious about the need for humanity to set up multiple, viable bases, to ensure the survival of our civilisation. He wants to put a million people on Mars. Yes. A million. You can’t accuse the man of thinking small. But there is a good reason behind that number. That number is the estimated population number required for a completely self-sustaining population.

There is also a good reason why we would want to seriously think about the survival of our species. As Tim points out, Earth has already experienced five mass extinction events. Tim helpfully lists all the nightmare scenarios that can extinguish human civilisation in a blink of an eye from a nearby supernova explosion, to a burst of gamma-ray hitting Earth from deep space, a solar super flare, the reversal of Earth’s magnetic field, a rogue black hole, an asteroid, a global epidemic and … murderous aliens. We don’t know when the next extinction event may occur, but we need to be prepared to save humanity from being eliminated by it. And the only way to achieve that goal is the colonisation of space.

Let’s look at it another way. Let’s imagine the Earth is a hard drive, and each species on Earth, including our own, is a Microsoft Excel document on the hard drive filled with trillions of rows of data. Using our shortened timescale, where 50 million years = one month, here’s what we know:

• Right now, it’s August of 2015
• The hard drive (i.e. the Earth) came into existence 7.5 years ago, in early 2008
• A year ago, in August of 2014, the hard drive was loaded up with Excel documents (i.e. the origin of animals). Since then, new Excel docs have been continually created and others have developed an error message and stopped opening (i.e gone extinct).
• Since August 2014, the hard drive has crashed five times—i.e. extinction events—in November 2014, in December 2014, in March 2015, April 2015, and July 2015. Each time the hard drive crashed, it rebooted a few hours later, but after rebooting, about 70% of the Excel docs were no longer there. Except the March 2015 crash, which erased 95% of the documents.
• Now it’s mid-August 2015, and the homo sapiens Excel doc was created about two hours ago.

Now—if you owned a hard drive with an extraordinarily important Excel doc on it, and you knew that the hard drive pretty reliably tended to crash every month or two, with the last crash happening five weeks ago—what’s the very obvious thing you’d do?

You’d copy the document onto a second hard drive.

That’s why Elon Musk wants to put a million people on Mars.

How is he going to put a million people on Mars? By revolutionising space travel and making it ‘affordable,’ until there are a million people who want to go to Mars, who can also afford the trip to Mars.

SpaceX’s ‘Red Dragon’ mission, its first unmanned return flight to Mars is currently planned for 2022.

Elon Musk is a man of vision, which has been in short supply of late.

I can’t wait for Part 4 of Tim’s account of his encounter with Elon Musk. In the meantime, set aside a weekend and read the first three parts of Tim’s series. I am serious about setting aside a weekend though – the currently still incomplete series is a long read, and involves the processing of a high volume of scientific information. But, you will be richly rewarded for your efforts:

Illustration of Dragon in Mars orbit

A post shared by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on

Entering the atmosphere

A post shared by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on

Supersonic retro thrusters firing

A post shared by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on

Touching down

A post shared by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on

Red Dragon on Mars

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