How the Webb Telescope Sees Back In Time

[Season 2 • Episode 20. Published 9/29/23.]

On Christmas Day, 2021, NASA launched the James Webb Space Telescope into orbit a million miles from Earth—a huge and insanely ambitious machine, billions of dollars over budget and 14 years past deadline. Now, as the telescope completes its first year of capturing astonishing images of the universe as it was just after the Big Bang, its creators discuss why so many things went right.

Episode transcript


Theme begins.

On Christmas Day, 2021, NASA launched the biggest, most powerful, most complex scientific instrument ever fired into space. The James Webb Space Telescope. 

It’s three times bigger than the Hubble telescope, much too big to fit into a rocket. So NASA designed it to fold up into the tube of an existing rocket, like origami, and then unfold once it was in orbit, a million miles from earth. 

Well, it’s now been one year since the Webb Telescope began sending pictures back; I thought we should check in. 

POGUE: So how is the telescope doing?
RIGBY: Oh my gosh. The Webb telescope is doing better than it was supposed to, and better than honestly, I dared hope for. We are doing science and returning data that is deeper, sharper, clearer than we promised it would be.

I’m David Pogue. And this is “Unsung Science.” 

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Season 2, episode 20: How the Webb Telescope Sees Back in Time.

In 1990, NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope. It had faced years of delays and cost overruns. But it proved the existence of black holes, calculated the age of the universe, and delivered astonishing views of deep space.

Six years later, NASA began planning a successor—a space telescope that would ultimately be three times bigger and 100 times more powerful than the Hubble, capable of seeing stars so distant, their light has been traveling for nearly 14 billion years—since just after the Big Bang. 

It would be the biggest, most ambitious space observatory ever built: the James Webb Space Telescope. 

They call it JWST for short, although it’s actually exactly the same number of syllables as “James Webb Space Telescope.” Anyway.

SCOTT: It’s got seven times the collecting area, a mirror which collects more light, to see things that are either dimmer or further away. 

I first met Scott Willoughby just before Christmas 2021, when the Webb was scheduled to lift off. When he showed me a model of the thing—I mean, it looks really cool, but nothing like what we think of as a telescope. 

Scott Willoughby was the Webb’s program manager. He works for Northrup Grumman, which NASA hired to do most of the design and construction. Building the Webb was his life’s work for 12 years

POGUE: Most people think of– a tube with little glass lenses. This thing is not a tube. And it doesn’t have glass lenses.
SCOTT: I took my dad to the World Science Festival in New York in June of 2010. We put a full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope in Battery Park in New York. It’s at the southern tip of Manhattan. ‘Cause we really just wanted people to come around and ask questions.  And he looked at it, and he’s like, “That’s not a telescope.” (LAUGH) I’m like—“your son’s been leadin’ this for (LAUGH) a few years… Dad, I’m– I’m here to tell you that–” He goes, “Nope. That’s not a telescope.”
POGUE: Parents. Am I right?
SCOTT: Yeah. And he just, like, you know, he was lookin’ for somethin’ that a pirate would hold up, right, you know, in there. And (UNINTEL). So we had the argument out in there. 

The Webb also works unlike any previous telescope. 

POGUE: I think a lotta people have heard about the Hubble Telescope. How is the Webb different?
SCOTT: Webb’s eye is different than Hubble’s eye. Mostly, Hubble’s eye is in the optical range. Mostly, what Hubble sees is what we see.

Webb is trained to work in the infrared domain almost exclusively, and very far into it. So it– and it’s important, because a lot of the juicy information from the beginning of the universe has been shifted from the optical into the infrared range. And with– you know, I w– in– in a whole science, you know, class, somebody could explain something called red shift. But it literally means–

POGUE: Actually, would you mind explaining red shift?
SCOTT: Yeah. So it’s– it’s– what folks know more in terms of sound. So when sound comes toward you, like a car on a street, you hear it sort of go, “Vrrr.” And when it goes away, it goes, “Vrrr.” The only reason that sounds like to you on the street corner is ‘cause when sound comes towards you, it compresses. And when it goes away from you, it stretches. 

Well, light in the universe? Same thing. So light that is, in effect, going away from      you, and the universe is expanding—Hubble, right, told us that wavelengths that start this long, over time, stretch longer. So an optical wavelength stretches into the infrared. It’s called red shift. 
So we’re designing an eye like– like infrared, you know, or like night vision goggles for the sky, where we’re gonna find infrared out in the universe. And the reason that it’s hard to find is because infrared is also heat. And you have to be colder than what you’re looking for. Otherwise, you see yourself. [CUT THE TWO LINES THAT ARE HERE] So Webb is also running at -400° Fahrenheit. 
POGUE: Oh, man. Is that the reason it’s so far away? 
SCOTT: So that’s the other difference from Hubble. Hubble is actually clo– we’re in Los Angeles. So for the viewers here, Hubble is closer to us when it goes over our head than San Francisco is to you in (LAUGH) your living room.
POGUE: Really?
SCOTT: Yeah. Because it’s / literally only 300 miles– you know, just vertically off of the Earth. / But with that, since it’s so close to   Earth, it stays warm. Right? ‘Cause Earth is warm. / For Webb to operate at -400° Fahrenheit, we send it four times further away than the moon. So we’re not 300 miles away. We’re one million miles away. /
So we’re goin’ four times further than the moon to this magical point, and let’s call it gravity stabilized, pseudo-stabilized point where the tug of the Earth, and the sun, and Mars, and everything out there is such that it will actually follow the Earth around the sun in a 365-day orbit, except a million miles further away. And with that, we can keep our optics– colder.

What he’s describing is LaGrange point 2.

That would be La Grange, as in the brilliant Italian-French mathematician Joe LaGrange. Or, as he was formally known, Joseph-Louis LaGrange. 

He theorized in 1764 that there are certain points in space where an object would be in perfect equilibrium, balanced between the gravitational pulls of two celestial bodies, like the earth and the sun, and centrifugal force. Like, you wouldn’t need fuel to keep a satellite parked at that spot. And that’s where the Webb telescope sits: At LaGrange point 2. It’s always on the side of the earth away from the sun, so that sunlight never hits the telescope.

And by this time, you might be wondering: what’s the point of all this?

POGUE: What’s it trying to see?

SCOTT: So the mission is wonderful, because I’m not even a scientist and I understand it. We’re gonna find out how the first stars formed. Because we have an eye that will see energy, right, that came outta there, a photon with a fingerprint of the day it left its star, just as if I left a fingerprint on that wall. 

And it’s so far away from us it hasn’t even reached us yet. And we put up this big optic, seven times bigger than Hubble. And like raindrops in a pool, we’re gonna collect photons that are 13 and a half billion years old. And with our instruments, we’re gonna break down that spectrum of light, and find out how the start of a Periodic Table, of how the elements that are in you, and me, and our planet, and everything else we know, came to be.

That’s what Webb is going to do. And we’ve never been able to see it. Hubble’s not sensitive enough, ‘cause it’s more in the optical range and is warmer. So we have to leave our planet, go a million miles away, right, to find this. And that’s just one of our missions! (LAUGH)
POGUE: A lot of the NASA marketing material says this thing can see back in time, that it’s a time machine. How is it a time machine? It’s seeing distance, not time.
SCOTT: So even the speed of light is finite. It– it is only so fast. It takes eight minutes from starlight, our sun, to get 93 million miles. So, in effect, when we see our sun, it’s eight minutes old. I’m looking back in time, because I’m seeing the information as it was. We’re doin’ this on an epic scale. We’re looking at a sun that isn’t 93 million miles away, it’s 13.5 billion lightyears away. And then that photon just took that long, patiently traveling, so we can put up this, you know, big telescope and collect it. And in theory, you’re looking back in time. You’re looking at the history. 
POGUE: Wow. Okay. So that’s one mission is to– to look back almost to the Big Bang. What– what are the other ones?
SCOTT: The telescope will also look at planets that are around other stars. 

Oh yeah, baby. This is the cool part. This is where the Webb is going to look at exoplanets—that is, planets around other stars. Not just look at them—it can  tell us what their atmospheres are like!

Not by sending some kind of jar with a lid to a planet millions of light-years away, although that would make a great Boy Scout merit-badge project. No, we do it more cleverly. Here’s how Jane Rigby explains it. She’s the JWST’s chief scientist.

RIGBY: A lot of the work that we’re doing with exoplanets is transit spectroscopy, where we stare at a — a distant star, and when a planet goes in front of that star, gets a little bit dimmer because that— the planet moves in front. Right? And by analyzing how the rainbow changes when the planet is in front of the star, versus not in front of the star, and taking the difference of those two rainbows, we can tell you what the atmosphere of that planet is like. 

Anyway. The point is, the Webb telescope is super duper cold. Not much warmer than absolute zero. 

Now, remember, infrared is a form of heat. So any warmth from the sun and the earth would blind this telescope to distant starlight. To illustrate how they protect against that problem, Willoughby showed me a model of the telescope. 

DP: So this is the telescope.
SCOTT: A teeny one.
DP: Not actual size.

The main mirror looks like a golden honeycomb, made up of 18 big hexagons arrayed more or less as a disc. 

SCOTT: Every one of these mirrors has a motor. So we can move ‘em, you, in and out, and we can adjust ‘em. So in the end they all look like one mirror segment to the universe.
POGUE: Was it made golden for looks?
SCOTT: It was not. (LAUGH) That’s a great question. For Webb, gold reflects infrared. 

This giant lens focuses the light it collects onto a very small second mirror, held in place by three struts about 23 feet away. This secondary mirror bounces the light back through a hole in the main mirror, and on into the scientific instruments behind it. 

But remember: Heat blinds the telescope—and the sun and the earth are both   constant sources of heat. 

SCOTT: So we have to block out any shred of that sun by deploying a big sun shield. A big– you know, umbrella, effectively.

And sure enough: Beneath the huge golden honeycomb is a huge heat barrier the size of a tennis court. Five layers of Mylar, each one the thickness of a human hair. Mylar is that shiny silver plastic stuff they make novelty helium balloons out of.

POGUE: So all this is to just separate the whole thing into a cold side from the hot side?
SCOTT: Correct. That cold side? Minus 400° Fahrenheit. The hot side? About plus 200° Fahrenheit. Sunlight will never touch these mirrors as they get on orbit. 

Now, if you’re doing the math in your head, you might be going: “The size of a tennis court? How are they gonna fit that into a rocket?” 

Exactly! And now we’ve arrived at the hardest part of all. This telescope is three stories tall and 70 feet wide—way too big to fit into any existing rocket. NASA’s solution? Fold it up, like origami. 

SCOTT: So this folds along here. And along here. Those three fold back. And those three fold back.
POGUE: They fold–
SCOTT: Yeah. So like ears. So this wing’ll deploy, this wing. And this is actually stowed up and over. 
POGUE: This is the part that worries me, as a layperson. I mean, how complex is this unfolding process?
SCOTT: It’s good to be worried. They have things that are called single-point failures. Right? This has to move this way and there’s only one of ‘em. And Webb has over 300 of those.
POGUE: 300 hundred things that have to go exactly right?
SCOTT: Correct. Yeah. 

If one of those 300 points of failure…failed, then NASA would have itself a $10 billion piece of space junk. 

SCOTT: So what do ya do with those? You just– you test ‘em to greater extremes than they’ll ever see. If it’s gotta be this cold and this warm, we test it this cold and this warm. If it’s gotta be shaken like this, we shake it like this. 
RIGBY: We vibrated it. We fake the violence of a launch, the noise of a launch, right? It’s like 140 decibels. So they have these giant speakers that I really want to have, like, can they play, like, some music I actually like? Um, but they play the noise of a launch. Um, they — they shake. They take it — we took the whole telescope on a shaker table, and we shook it.
POGUE: I mean, it’s a bunch of pulleys and cables to unfold that.
RIGBY: Yeah, a good fraction of a kilometer of cabling. Yes.
POGUE: That’s, like, asking for trouble. (LAUGHS)
RIGBY: Multiples motors, tons of pulleys. It actually all looks a little like, um, the rigging of a sailboat. Like, they had binders and binders of  plans. I mean like a couple bookshelves of plans. “What if this goes wrong? What if this goes wrong? This is how we do it.” They had the most complicated flow charts I’ve ever seen.

Now, before launch, the Webb project had its critics. It was way over budget. It was way delayed—the original launch date was in 2007! So plenty of people probably muttered, “Oh, those incompetent government bureaucrats! They can’t do anything on time and on budget.”

But it’s a little more complicated than that. The plan was for this machine to sit a million miles from earth—four times as far as the moon. We’ve never sent astronauts that far. In other words, if something does go wrong, we can’t exactly send a repair crew, like we did with the Hubble Telescope in in 1993.

So NASA had no choice but to do all that testing while it was still on the ground. 

RIGBY: Not all of those tests went great. We did a deployment test where we deployed this whole sun shield, right? And we — we unfolded it on the ground as it was going to unfold in space. And they didn’t work! But that’s how we caught the errors before we sent the thing up into space.

But the thing is…every time a test on earth reveals a flaw, they have to fix the flaw and then redo the tests. And that takes time and takes money. There’s just no choice. I’d argue that the time and money overruns weren’t incompetence—they were kind of just the opposite. It’s methodical and careful, because you’ve only got one shot at this thing.

You’re building a one-off, one-of-a-kind machine, made of folding parts and hinges and cables—you just can’t predict the timeline or the cost when you’re starting out.

POGUE: You can’t iterate on this thing.
SCOTT: We (LAUGH)– we’re building one thing for 19 years. And they ask, “How can you build somethin’ for 19 years and have it be relevant?” Well, first of all, we’re lookin’ for light that’s 13.5 billion years old, so another few years won’t make a difference. (LAUGH) It’s still gonna be there. 

In the end, NASA settled on a launch date: Christmas Day, 2021. From a launch pad in French Guiana, aboard a French rocket called Ariane 5. 

POGUE: So at this point, days away from the launch, how confident are you? 
SCOTT: Confidence is built, to me, out of, “Did we do everything that we could possibly have done?” I can confidently say we did everything that we needed to do. We took every piece of it and we did the best we absolutely, possibly could. 

Willoughby knew that once the Webb was in space, he’d have to wait 29 days to find out if the unfolding worked, and then five months for the telescope to calibrate and cool down. 

SCOTT: So in the end, it takes us a half a year before you’ll be reporting on some image that humankind has never seen before in our lives. 
POGUE: And is that the point where you can finally sleep at night?
SCOTT: I’ll feel a lot better then. (LAUGH)

Well…guess what? It’s coming up on two years since that launch. That time has come and gone. We now know whether the telescope unfolded smoothly without botching up. Whether it reached its target spot a million miles away. Whether that $10 billion was         well spent. Whether Scott Willoughby is getting any sleep.

And after the ad break, you’ll know, too.

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Well, let’s put you out of your suspense misery: The Webb Telescope took off flawlessly on Christmas Day 2021. 

Audio from the launch

Guy: Main engine start. And liftoff! Décollage—liftoff! From a tropical rainforest to the edge of time itself, James Webb begins a voyage back to the birth of the universe.

To get the details, I Zoomed up my old pal, Scott Willoughby, now a year and a half after our first interview.

POGUE: Scott Willoughby. How are you doing, man? 
SCOTT: I am doing great. 
POGUE: Yeah, you are. When we—when we last spoke, it was ten days to launch. And our conversation was full of statements like, ‘Well, six months from now, we’ll know.’ So—do we know? 
SCOTT: We absolutely know. 
POGUE: Let’s go to the day of the launch. You were there? 
SCOTT: Yeah, I was. I was in French Guiana. 
POGUE: I’m trying to figure out what the team who put this thing together must have felt upon launch. Because it’s exciting, but it doesn’t answer any of the ‘will it work’ questions. 
SCOTT: And that’s exactly—I mean, I’ve actually struggled with the word to describe an incredible feeling of elation, but not wanting to spike the ball on the five yard line, right? The game isn’t over. You know, we’re in the, we’re in the first quarter, right? 
So we spent 20 years, and especially the last several years, treating this thing like a Fabergé egg, right? And now here it is, you know, on a rocket, about to get lit, right, below, this explosion, and then, you know, launched into space, that journey through Earth’s atmosphere. 
And that emotion was—you know, I compare it to, you know, watching your kids leave for school and knowing that, you know, they’re not coming back in the house, you know, as a kid again, right? it’s a tear-jerker kind of thing because you’re literally watching it drift away. 
POGUE: Here’s the big one for me—what made this an amazing story for me is the difficulty of the engineering involved—according to you and NASA, there were over 300 points of failure, as they say, which made it sound super risky and super failure-possible. And it turns out, as far as I know, everything went really well. None of those failures failed. Which makes me ask, was it really that dramatic and risky, or was some of that heightened to make it seem exciting? 
SCOTT: It was not heightened. As a matter of fact, I never thought we described well enough, actually, how hard this was, so people really had that appreciation. 
So there were 344 things had to operate successfully. That mirror deployment—if it doesn’t come out, the mission is over. It has hinges. And if the hinge gets stuck, right, the boom doesn’t go out. So there’s multiple hinges and, and, and even when it gets out there, eventually we had to drive the mirror into its position where it is, and moments like that were insanely tense. 
POGUE: Wow. Did anything go wrong? 
SCOTT: There were some long days that were, you know, edge-of-your-seat exhausting, you know. The covers that protected our sunshield membranes. It’s got 90 cables and it had 107 release devices and telescopic booms, right? Boom, boom, boom. Well, when those covers first got fired to roll back, we didn’t see the immediate verification that they had completely rolled. And then you don’t know if that’s because they’re stuck—because we can’t look at it—you know, or did they just roll maybe to a slightly different position, right? 
I won’t keep you on the edge of your seat—they were still good—but it was different. And that day started at five in the morning on December 31st and finished at 11:55 p.m., you know, literally 5 minutes before New Year’s Eve in Baltimore, when we finally knew it all worked on, on those particular steps, because we took our time. 
And at 11:55 p.m., I went home. I got on the phone with my daughters. I said, “Happy New Year’s.” They’re like, “where are you going to party, Dad?” I said, “I’m going to sleep.”

On day 3 after launch, the telescope passed the moon’s orbit. On Day 7, the sunshield finished unfurling. On Day 13, the main mirror began to unfold. On Day 20, NASA began the delicate process of adjusting the 18 hexagonal mirrors into precise shape and position, using the seven motors behind each one.

And on Day 30, with a few short spurts from its thrusters, the Webb Telescope coasted to a stop at LaGrange point 2. “Home, home on Lagrange,” NASA tweeted. Of course they did.

And on Day 48, Webb sent back its first picture. Kinda blurry, out of focus, but definitely a picture of stars.

But then, on Day 165—that would be June 8, 2022—the telescope delivered the kind of news we didn’t want to hear. 

Meteoroid newscast.

GUY: Just seven months into the mission, the $10 billion device has already sustained irreversible damage. A tiny, but incredibly fast-moving space rock slammed into one of the telescope’s 18 gold-plated mirrors, leaving a small but significant dent.
POGUE: That must have been a scary day. 
SCOTT: We prepare for micrometeorites. This wasn’t a surprise to us. A lot of the articles came out and intimated it like there was this big shock. But in this particular case, the size of the micrometeorite was bigger than our statistics had thought, and bigger— like, you know, I don’t know the fraction of a grain of sand to a full grain of sand. I mean, we’re not talking bigger, like a rock; we’re still talking small. 
But they travel at upwards of 17,000 miles an hour. So, you know, if I shot a 17,000 mile an hour grain of sand at you, it’s going to hurt, right? It leaves a little, you know, mark behind where it hits.  But we have an optic seven times bigger than Hubble, so precisely aligned that its surface accuracy is so that almost anywhere you hit, every photon will come back. It has such a perfect curvature. 
So this small thing is inconsequential. There is zero impact to science. It was a lot sexier to say, “Webb’s got, you know, bashed by a micrometeorite and it’s damaged,” and et cetera. And it’s like, “Yeah, it got hit, but it’s good.”
POGUE: Are you impugning the media, sir? 
SCOTT: No, no, no, no, no. 

And then, on July 11, 2022, NASA released the first science-usable photograph taken by the telescope. Actually, the President released it, on a live broadcast from the White House.

BIDEN: That’s who we are as a nation: a nation of possibilities. And now let’s take a look at the very first image from this miraculous telescope. (Applause.)

The picture shows a galaxy cluster called SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. It’s a very cool photo—but the next day, NASA released four more pictures, and they were incredible. The Southern Ring nebula. Stephan’s Quintet, a collection of five galaxies 290 million light-years away. And a breathtaking shot of the Carina Nebula, a massive cloud of gas and dust where some stars are forming and others are dying.

POGUE: I remember reading, “Stephan’s Quintet is 290 million light years away.” 290 million light years awavy?! I mean, it shouldn’t be possible. 
SCOTT: And we’re seeing it in fine detail—like, I mean, literally, like, you know, in—as, as if we were kind of looking at something across our living room. 

The fifth image wasn’t a photo at all. It was a spectroscopy graph of the elements in the atmosphere of a hot, puffy gas-giant exoplanet called WASP-96 b. The graph told us that there’s water in its atmosphere.

SCOTT: To me, it was—it was mind-blowing, because they’re showing that we can detect signs of elements in an atmosphere of another planet. I mean, humankind has now created an instrument that can do that. 

If this podcast weren’t an audio medium, this is the part where I’d show you some of these pictures, and you’d be like, “whoaaa.” I mean, it’s easy enough to find ‘em—just Google “webb telescope photos.”

Or maybe you saw ‘em when they came out. I mean, it was global news.

SCOTT: When the president released the science—not only that, Google changes Doodle. The Empire State Building turned gold. The headlines of almost every major, you know, newspaper had the images. Piccadilly Square in London, Times Square in New York—I mean, the, the world celebrated those first science images from old school to new school, right? That day just floored me. I wouldn’t have ever thought that it would happen like that. Just floored me. Absolutely. 
POGUE: The public getting interested in, in space and time. I mean that’s—that doesn’t happen often.
SCOTT: No. I will argue with anyone until the end of my time. What, this century, has had such a big impact positively? Tell me the last good thing that hit like that. I think you got to go back a century. 

Of course, what’s missing from most of the discussion about these images is that—well, they don’t actually look like they look. I mean, if you were out there in space, you would just see blackness. Remember, the Webb detects infrared light, which we can’t see, at least without night-vision goggles. NASA has tweaked the photos to make them visible to our pathetic and limited eyes.

RIGBY: Our eyes see a narrow range of light that the sun makes a lot of, and that is useful for, like, detecting lions from grass. Right? But there are animals on earth that can see bluer or redder than our eyes. Bees can see in the blue because flowers, light up really bright in the blue and ultraviolet. Pit vipers can see more in the infrared, right?
POGUE: Cool!
RIGBY: That’s how they find their prey. They look for the warm thing. Right? So different animals on earth have made different eyeballs, different detectors that are optimized for different purposes. The Webb telescope is an infrared telescope, OK? At the edge of its range, it can see the same light that you can see, but then it goes redder past what to your eye is invisible. But that’s not that there’s anything weird about that light. It’s just a limitation of our eyes. And so just like soldiers use infrared vision at night to compensate for, you know, to get powers their own eyes don’t have, it’s the same thing. We’re using technology to look at light that is invisible to our eyes, but that is still out there.

For Webb, when we get an image, it’s grayscale, it’s coming in as ones and zeros. That’s just what the detector saw. 

But the stunning pictures we see online are definitely not grayscale. They’re incredibly beautiful color photos. And for that, we have Joe DePasquale and Alyssa Pagan to thank. Their job descriptions are NASA science visuals developers.

JOE: That means that I take the data from the telescope, and work with data from different filters of the telescope to compose color images that we then use for press releases.
POGUE: Excellent. And general human inspiration.
JOE: Yes.
POGUE: Okay. So, when — when we see these stunning Webb Telescope photos, they’ve come from you two.
JOE: Most of them have. Yes. 
POGUE: And — and they didn’t look like that in outer space.
JOE: That’s right. So that question actually comes up a lot: “Is what Webb sees real?” And absolutely yes, it is real. These are real objects in space, and Webb is observing them in infrared wavelengths, which our eyes are not sensitive to. And so, it’s our job to be able to translate that light into something that our eyes can see. 
We’re taking images that Webb has — has captured in different wavelengths and then assigning colors to them according to their wavelengths. So, the longest wavelengths are red. The shortest wavelengths are blue. And the things in between are green. And then, that color all combines together to create these color images.
POGUE: Okay. And is that a standard astronomical color scheme? Or does China use mauve for short wavelengths, you know, like —
ALYSSA: No. It’s pretty standard, and it’s because that’s the way that we see light, and this is what we think is the truest representation of what we could possibly see –if we could see an infrared light.
POGUE: If you were a — that viper that can be seen from that. Yeah.
POGUE: Does red equal longer wavelengths in our visible spectrum?
JOE: Yes.
POGUE: Oh. So, you’re just — you’re just shrinking the range so that we can see it.
JOE: Right.

Ever since, the Webb has been delivering one discovery after another. Galaxies so old, they formed only 200 million years after the Big Bang. If the history of the universe were a year long, those galaxies would have formed on January fifth. 

Then JWST found water around a strange comet. Then soot-like molecules in a galaxy more than 12 billion light-years away. Then 717 new galaxies that nobody had ever seen before. Then a supermassive black hole, 9 million times more massive than our sun. 

And on, and on, and on. By the end of its first year of operation, scientists had published over 750 papers based on Webb data. Here’s Jane Rigby, the Webb’s chief scientist.

RIGBY: Oh my gosh. The Webb telescope is doing better than it was supposed to and better than honestly, I dared hope for. Across the board, our, uh, pictures are sharper and clearer because the telescope — the mirrors are working even better together than we, uh, designed them to, returning data that is deeper, sharper, clearer than we promised it would be.
None of us have lived so charmed a life that we deserve this. Right? It’s such a joy that this telescope is working so well. The serious part of that is because it was built really well by the engineers that designed and constructed it. But it is, oh my gosh. It’s just such a joy to work with.
POGUE: All right. So approaching two years out there. Have we learned anything cool and layperson friendly?
RIGBY: Sure. The elevator pitch for the Webb Telescope was to study — to get the baby pictures of the universe, right? To study galaxies in the process of formation. And we have delivered exactly what we promised on that topic. We have gone from, you know, with Hubble, we had a few candidates to be these very, very distant galaxies. With Webb, we’re finding hundreds in just dozens of hours. It’s a little embarrassing how good this telescope is for this kind of science.
What have we learned? We’ve been able to see that, um, in the first billion years of the universe’s life, galaxies formed earlier than we expected. They, uh, were forming stars in these extreme bursts of star formation that are unlike anything in the nearby universe where they’re forming stars at a rate like a thousand times what — what our own Milky way can do.
We’ve gone from basically ignorance about what that first billion years of the universe was like to having it in crisp high definition. 

Originally, NASA sold Congress on the idea of funding the Webb telescope with the promise that it would be fully operational for ten years. Ten years of amazing discoveries. After that, it would run out of fuel for making little adjustments in its position and angle. 

But even here, the JWST wanted to deliver one last chunk of happy news.

SCOTT: So the two most important things for Webb that were going to consume fuel early on was when the launch vehicle left us and went to orbit, if it’s tilted a little high or lower left or right, we would have to fire our own engines and correct ourselves, right?
But that rocket tipoff was near perfect. I mean, for all intents and purposes, it was perfect. So we never had to turn our rocket engines on to correct for what’s called tip off. So immediately, that fuel is used for longer mission life, right?
And then subsequently, we use the rockets on our vehicle to get us a million miles out. So we, we fired mid-course corrections, they were called—MCCs, mid-course corrections—and we fired those. The biggest one occurred 12 hours after launch. We did a perfect midcourse correction. Between those two things, we went from a ten-year to a over 20-year mission life.
POGUE: What? That’s amazing. You guys must have had so many beer bashes in the last few months. I mean, one thing after another went right, right? I mean… 
SCOTT: Yes, yes. 
POGUE: For something this complex…I don’t get it. 
SCOTT: We deserved it. We deserved it, David—after 20 years, we deserve that. 

For Scott Willoughby, the Webb’s success has, of course, been incredibly gratifying. But he can’t shed the feeling that he’s launched a child into the world, knowing that his daily life with her is over.

POGUE: Astronauts talk about when they come back from, from a mission in space—they come back to Earth—sometimes there’s a letdown. You know, you’ve been pushing so hard against something and then that resistance is gone and it’s hard to stay perky. Did that happen to you once this thing was finally—even though it was a giant success—? I mean, you no longer have it to look forward to. 
SCOTT: It’s—it absolutely is. Like, if this was when Webb was going on, I could just walk up to 100 engineers on any given day. My favorite thing was to walk to people’s offices. And I went from a team of 750 to 0.  I’m kind of the coach now, right? I went from the field to the dugout. There’s those moments where it does feel like—I’d say it’s like a void. 
I mean, Webb’s still there. Heck, I’m reading about it in the newspapers. Right? So there’s joy, but there’s not the same, reporting to Congress and reporting up to, you know, leadership at NASA and my own leadership and, and dealing with issues, right, while you’re in the middle of it. 
And when that’s all gone, I do miss the, the game being dialed up that high. 
POGUE: Wow. Well, congratulations on having the thing freakin’ work.  It was—it’s such an ambitious thing with so many things that could go wrong. And they didn’t. I’m just thunderstruck. And you led it.

SCOTT: You bring back a feeling in me that I don’t think will ever go away. I have a feeling this sensation is going to be every bit, as, you know, all other major excitements that you think of—you know, life, and children being born, and marriages, or winning my high school football league championship, you know—all of those things, you can kind of feel the feeling again once you get nostalgic about it. And it just—so that’s going to live forever.

Inside Elon Musk’s Brain

[Season 2 • Episode 19. Published 9/15/23.]

People use all kinds of words to describe Elon Musk, from “genius” to “megalomaniac,” from “visionary” to “erratic”—but now there’s less reason to call him “enigmatic,” thanks to Walter Isaacson’s new 688-page biography. Isaacson hung out with Musk for two years, attending meetings, witnessing meltdowns, taking Musk’s 3 a.m. phone calls. In this special “Unsung Science” episode, Isaacson describes the man behind Tesla, SpaceX, Starlink, and the social-media site once known as Twitter.

Episode transcript


Theme begins.

People use all kinds of words to describe Elon Musk, from “genius” to “megalomaniac,” from “visionary” to “erratic.” But now there’s less reason to call him “enigmatic,” thanks to Walter Isaacson’s new 688-page biography. Isaacson hung out with Musk for two years, attending meetings, witnessing meltdowns, and taking Musk’s 3 a.m. phone calls. 

WALTER: I’d get a text message and say, “can I call you?” And it was fine.  One of the things you learn when you’re reporting on somebody, especially on Elon Musk, is you don’t fill the silences. You don’t say much, you just listen.

In this special “Unsung Science” episode, Isaacson describes the man behind Tesla, SpaceX, Starlink, and the social-media site once known as Twitter. I’m David Pogue, and this is “Unsung Science.”

First Ad

Season 2, episode 19: Inside Elon Musk’s brain.

I mean, I think it’d be wild to try being inside Elon Musk’s brain—you know, just for like 45 mninutes. 

He’s the world’s richest man. Some call him a genius who built Tesla into the first successful new American car company since 1920 and kickstarted the global electric-car revolution

…or a visionary who founded SpaceX, which now carries more payloads into space than the rest of the world combined

…or the mastermind of Starlink, whose satellites are bringing high-speed internet to remote locations and disaster areas

…or a prophet who’s building a rocket to Mars, and wants to save humanity by colonizing other planets. 

Of course, there are also some who consider him an unhinged lunatic who can be volatile, erratic, and cruel. Who spreads misinformation and conspiracy theories. Who bought Twitter and then ruined it. 

As Musk put it on “Saturday Night Live”:

MUSK: I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars on a rocket ship. / Did you think I was also going to be a chill normal dude?

The closest most of us will ever come to getting inside Musk’s brain may be reading Walter Isaacson’s new 688-page book, called “Elon Musk,” published by Simon & Schuster, a CBS News sister company. Today, you’ll hear the highlights of my interviews with Isaacson for a “CBS Sunday Morning” story.

POGUE: What kind of access did you get to write the book?
WALTER: I said, “I don’t want 10 or 12 interviews. I want to be by your side for two or three years. I want to be in every meeting. I just want to be sitting there late at night, watching you work.” And he said, “Fine.” 
POGUE: Does it present any kind of conflict of interest for you as you write about him, having given you this one of a kind gift, to let you be the anointed biographer?
WALTER: In some ways, maybe you are a bit more sympathetic, because you kind of get it. On the other hand, your duty is to the reader, not to the subject.
POGUE: So you didn’t hold back?
WALTER: I tried to be brutally honest, tried to be straightforward. The guy’s a rough character.

Isaacson firmly believes that we can credit Musk’s penchant for drama to his brutal childhood in South Africa, and to his abusive father, Errol.

WALTER: It was the drama that somehow has been the theme of his life. 
It starts on the playground, when he’s sort of, has bad social graces, and he’s small. And he keeps getting beaten up by bullies. At one point, they smash his head against the concrete steps of the school. And then when he comes home, after being in the hospital, his father takes the side of the kid who beat him up, and makes Elon stand in front of him as he berates Elon for being that way. 
POGUE: Did you get to interview the father?
WALTER: I talked to Errol Musk many times, uh, and he gave me his side. Errol Musk said, “I raised him to be tough.” So Errol Musk doesn’t make a whole lot of apologies. 

Young Elon’s salvation was video games. When he was 12, a computer magazine paid him $500 to publish the code of a simple video game he’d written. 

At 18, he moved to Canada. He started college there, transferred to Penn, studied physics and economics. After college, he started and sold a couple of software companies—one of which became PayPal, which eBay bought for $1.5 billion. Musk was 30 years old.

With his share of that money, he founded SpaceX. 

WALTER: He goes to Russia to try to buy a couple of rockets, because he wants to send something into the Moon and see what he can do. And he has this horrible time in Russia. And then they keep jacking up the price of the Dnepr rocket that they want to sell to $18 million. So on the flight home, he says, “exactly what does the cost of all the material on that rocket — why can’t we make it cheaper?”
And he shows it to the two rocket engineers he had traveled with. And they said, “oh, so that’s what the idiot savant is thinking.” But it was a good thing. Had he been able to get those rockets from Russia, he would not have said, “Let’s build them ourselves.” And you wouldn’t have had this new generation that becomes the Falcon rocket. A couple of years later, he founded Tesla. Well, sort of founded it.
Tesla was founded by really three groups of people in this neighborhood. One was JB Straubel, who really wanted to do a lithium-ion car; another was a group called AC Propulsion, who did a battery; and another was, uh, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, who registered the name Tesla.
And what Musk did was he brought them all together and funded them, and said, “you all have to work together,” made himself the chairman. When you have a group of people like that, they all tend to remember their contributions more than the others. There was a lawsuit in which they finally had it settled, and all of them got to call themselves co-founders.  

Throughout Musk’s adult life, he’s heard experts say one thing, over and over again: “You can’t do that. That’s impossible.” Both on the small scale…

WALTER: “That schedule’s impossible. Removing this valve is impossible,” whatever. He says, “Tell me the physical law that tells me it’s impossible.” 

…and on the grand scale. Everyone said that starting a successful private space company couldn’t be done. Said that building electric cars in the US couldn’t be done. 

WALTER: In the early 2000’s, when he decided he was gonna do electric cars based on lithium-ion batteries, everybody had gotten out of that. GM had canceled. Everybody thought it was crazy. And yet he really has been able to change the whole way we look at cars. And five, ten years from now, nobody would be buying a gasoline powered car.

Actually, funny thing is, starting a space company and an electric car company almost couldn’t be done. Even by him. Musk succeeded only by surviving 2008.

WALTER: A lot of rockets exploded. Tesla was virtually bankrupt, absolutely no money. I mean, he would stay up at night and just go to the bathroom and vomit. He was so stressed. 

Musk remembers it like this on “60 Minutes”:

MUSK: That was definitely the worst year of my life.  Man, I never thought of myself as someone capable of a nervous breakdown. But this was the closest I’d ever come. It seemed pretty—pretty dark.

Musk saved both companies by pushing himself to the brink of exhaustion—to this day, he works seven days a week, long into the evening—and micromanaging every operation. Or, as Musk calls it, nanomanaging. 

Walter Isaacson walked me through SpaceX’s rocket factory, right next to the LA airport.

WALTER: Both here and especially on the Tesla assembly line, there’s a red light that flashes when there’s any problem happening. And they call it “walk to the red,” because you’ll be walking along with Elon, he’ll see a red light, and he’ll head right to it. And not only does he want to talk to people on the assembly line, he wants the designers and the engineers to be right there so they feel the pain. 
POGUE: If you’re the employee, your blood’s gotta run cold when he comes by your station.
WALTER: You know, there are people who really try to avoid eye contact, because he can be brutal. He can get really mad. He can unload on people. 

Yeah. Musk unloading on people comes up quite a bit in Isaacson’s book. Musk comes across as a little bit…dare I say it…volatile?

POGUE: What is Elon Musk like?
WALTER: There’s no single Elon Musk. He has many personalities. Almost —
POGUE: Elon Musks.
WALTER: Yes, exactly. Almost multiple personalities. And you can watch him go from being very giddy and funny to being deeply in engineering mode. And then suddenly the dark cloud happens and he’s in what his girlfriend / calls demon mode. And in demon mode, he can just be brutal to the people in front of him. It’s almost like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When he goes back to being Dr. Jekyll, he hardly remembers what he did as Mr. Hyde. 
POGUE: When you were hanging out with him at these meetings and at the headquarters, did you ever witness this personality shift and the clouds coming?
WALTER: Over and over again, I would see the personality shift. I’d see the harshness and demon mode take over. You’d be sitting at a conference table in Hawthorne for SpaceX, and suddenly boom, something triggers him. 

If you’re one of the employees, you either quit, or you rise to his challenge. 

WALTER: He drives them crazy, but drives them to do things they never thought they could do, or they fail. 

I can give you some great examples of people in that first category—people who thrive working for Musk. There’s Gwynne Shotwell, for example, who runs SpaceX; I interviewed her in 2019.

GWYNNE: I love working for Elon. He’s incredibly– he’s so smart. He’s funny. He’s so dedicated. Like, just working for him makes you wanna work harder and better and be better. 

And a few weeks ago, I met Franz Von Holzhausen. He’s Tesla’s design chief. He designs all of Tesla’s vehicles, including the radical stainless-steel Cybertruck and the humanoid robot known as Optimus. On the day we were there, he was celebrating his 15th anniversary of going to work for Elon Musk.

FRANZ: Sometimes it’s not easy. You have to put some personal things aside and — but ultimately the reward’s worth it.
POGUE: Let’s say I’m Elon, and I’m saying, “we have to do it this way.” And you, based on your entire career and wisdom, disagree.
FRANZ: Those moments, you agree to disagree, but ultimately it’s Elon’s company. He’s the boss.

Musk is also famous for imposing insane deadlines. Here’s Walter Isaacson again:

WALTER: He’s only happy when he’s in a storm, when he’s in a drama, when it’s being pushed. He feels that if he’s not in hardcore intensity mode, “surging” as he calls it, sleeping under his desk, creating dramas when there aren’t dramas to be had, but he’ll manufacture a drama. Like announce they have to have the rocket ship stacked by a month, or they have to have autonomy demonstration of a self-driving car. 
POGUE: And they’re frequently impossible deadlines, and everybody knows it.
WALTER: You know, he’s able to turn the impossible into the merely late by setting these deadlines. 

Elon Musk’s companies miss so many of his deadlines! The Cybertruck was supposed to have started shipping in 2020. SpaceX hoped to send its first mission to Mars in 2020. Teslas were supposed to have been fully self-driving by 2016!

I asked Gwynne Shotwell about this deadline-missing thing.

GWYNNE: We rarely make our dates, although we’ve gotten a little more realistic.
DP: Is there a psychological value, do you think, for the workforce to pick a target that’s tough to attain to– to light a fire under everyone? 
GWYNNE: In fact, I think that’s part of our success is, we have such audacious goals with timelines that are seemingly impossible. People feel very motivated all the time. 

Oh, and on the subject of getting things done: the dude can’t stand red tape. Rules and regulations make him crazy. 

WALTER: He says, “the physics is the only rule that we have to apply. The rest are just recommendations.” 

Here’s Musk at a Wall Street Journal conference:

MUSK: The vast majority of rules and regulations live forever. So if more rules and regulations are applied every year, and it just keeps growing and growing, it eventually takes longer and longer and it’s harder to do things. This hardens the arteries of civilization, where you’re able to less and less over time. I really think the government should really be trying hard to remove rules and regulations. 

Walter Isaacson heard a lot of that.

WALTER: Every person who makes a requirement is just covering their butt. You know, they know that if they make a requirement, they’re not gonna get in trouble. He’s the one who says, “that’s why we don’t build things in America, is people make too many requirements that too many referees and not enough doers.”

The other Musk golden design rule is, “Delete, delete, delete.”

WALTER: He will walk up and down the assembly line, and his process is, delete, delete, delete. Just get rid of things. “Why do we need this heat shield? Why do we need this valve? Why do we need, uh, this part of the yoke of the steering wheel?”
POGUE: There’s this fantastic story in the book of this strip, along the edge of the battery pack on the floor of the Teslas that they were having trouble manufacturing—
WALTER: And he says, “why is it there?” and they say, “because it’s supposed to help for vibration”. Then he said, “who required it?” and they said, “well, I think maybe the sound people did.” He said, “Find me the name of the person. Find the person.” They couldn’t find the person. He said, “Delete it. Take it out there and see if it makes any difference.” He did that with so many things.

To prove that the vibration strip was an unnecessary part of the car, he demanded to hear audio recordings of the interior of the car with and without that strip installed. And sure enough: He couldn’t hear any difference. They deleted the part. 

WALTER: And he says, if you aren’t deleting a whole lot of things that you end up having to add back a few of them, then you haven’t tried hard enough. 

The same doctrines of “delete, delete, delete” made SpaceX a triumph, too. Especially deleting, deleting, deleting pointless regulations.

There’s this one anecdote from Isaacson’s book that I just love. It’s just—so insane. Let me set the scene for you: It’s late 2010, and SpaceX is about to attempt sending a capsule into space and returning it to earth. Only the US, Russian, and Chinese space programs had ever pulled that off before.

But the day before the launch, they’re looking over the rocket, and they discover two small cracks in the second-stage engine skirt. The engine skirt is that nozzle, that cone, that all the fire comes out of. Here’s a clip from the “Elon Musk” audiobook that tells the story: 

NARR: “Everyone at NASA assumed we’d be standing down from the launch for a few weeks,” says Garver. “The usual plan would have been to replace the entire engine.”
“What if we just cut the skirt?” Musk asked his team. “Like, literally cut around it?” In other words, why not just trim off a tiny bit of the bottom that had the two cracks? The shorter skirt would mean the engine would have slightly less thrust, one engineer warned, but Musk calculated that there would still be enough to do the mission.
It took less than an hour to make the decision. Using a big pair of shears, the skirt was trimmed, and the rocket launched on its critical mission the next day, as planned. “NASA couldn’t do anything but accept SpaceX’s decisions and watch in disbelief,” Garver recalls.

I mean… “a big pair of shears?!”

POGUE: Doesn’t NASA say, “but that’s dangerous?”
WALTER: There are times when there’s pushback, when NASA is watching him do something and say, “Wait a minute, that’s not following all the rules and requirements.” He is very safe, very focused when it comes to humans going into orbit. But when it comes to testing his new rocket Starship, he’s like, “Let’s try it this way. Let’s try it without these valves. And yeah, it’s going to blow up, but we’ll see what we learn. You got to move fast, and occasionally rockets blow up.”

That mission went off without a hitch, by the way. SpaceX became the first private company in history to send a capsule to space and then bring it home again safely.

POGUE: I mean, I guess he’s done it dozens of times now, saving the taxpayer millions upon millions of dollars. If there’s a — is an accident, if something does go wrong—and I think he said it will—would that set all this back?
WALTER: Yeah. There’s going to be accidents someday. There’ll be accidents with self-driving Teslas. It will set things back. And Musk doesn’t have a feel for how public reacts of these things. He says, “we’re a nation of risk takers. People came over here on boats. People died coming over here, but that is why we’re an adventurous nation. We’ve lost the taste for that. We’ve quit taking risks, that’s why we can’t get things done.” 
But he’s right! We’re very risk-averse society. And the minute something goes wrong, people are going to be jumping on him, jumping on SpaceX because they took too many risks.
POGUE: I guess we focus on the death of an individual. He’s taking the bigger picture—in all these enterprises, Tesla and SpaceX—on society and humanity.
WALTER): He says, “yeah, if we don’t risk a few things and maybe even a few lives, then more lives will be lost. It’ll be worse.”
POGUE: And what’s the urgency?
WALTER: He feels there’s an urgency for humans to become multi-planetary to get to Mars. 

As Musk put it on “60 Minutes:”

MUSK: A future where we’re a space-faring civilization is inspiring and exciting, compared to one where we’re forever confined to earth until some eventual extinction event. That’s really why I started SpaceX.

By this point, I think you’ve started to get a glimpse of what’s going on inside Elon Musk’s brain. But that doesn’t mean you necessarily love it.

After the ad break, we’ll move on into the inevitable second phase of Elon Musk’s career—where people start to worry about him.

Second Break

Welcome back. We’ve been chatting with Walter Isaacson, who spent two years, on and off, at Elon Musk’s side as he wrote a new 688-page biography. 

We already know that Musk can get super intense, insensitive, demanding, even cruel. Isaacson attributes some of that to Musk’s Asperger’s syndrome.

MUSK: I’m actually making history tonight as the first person with Asperger’s to host SNL. Or at least the first to admit it. 
POGUE: You write quite a bit about his Asperger’s and his lack of empathy. And I think there’s no greater example than when the first Tesla fatality occurred.
WALTER: When, uh, the first Tesla death gets reported, he says, “Look, far fewer people are going to be killed by autonomous vehicles than are going to be killed by human driven vehicles.” Now you can say that, but if an autonomous robotic vehicle kills somebody, that’s a bigger news story than a hundred deaths by human error. 
POGUE: And I remember reading that and just it frying my brain. He said, “1.3 million people die when humans are behind the wheel; we’ve killed one person.”
POGUE: I mean, that doesn’t help the grieving family.
WALTER: Yeah. I don’t think he understands human emotions all that well.

The book doesn’t skimp on the human emotions of Musk’s girlfriends and wives, either.

WALTER: In general, he’s a drama magnet. So whether it is Amber Heard or his first wife, Justine, or even Claire Boucher, there’s a certain drama, a lot of fighting, a lot of intensity to the relationship. His one relationship that was very calm and beautiful was Talulah Riley, the British actress who he still adores, and she still adores him. They were married twice. (CHUCKLES). But that calm, that came with the relationship is not something that Elon Musk actually relished. He says, “I was born for the storm.”
POGUE: I think it even goes farther than that. At one point, he discussed the fact that when everything is fine, he’s uncomfortable!
WALTER: There was a wonderful moment at the beginning of 2022, when everything is going really well. Tesla’s building a million cars, 30 rockets go into—send things into orbit and land again, becomes the richest person on earth, Time’s Person of the Year. And I’m thinking, all right, you must really be able to now sit back and, you know, smell the flowers, savor success.
POGUE: Yeah.
WALTER: And he says, “no, I’m not. It’s unsettling to me.” And that’s when he starts secretly buying up shares of Twitter.

Yeah, the Twitter thing. I mean, Musk was already a loose cannon on Twitter when he didn’t own it. 

POGUE: What is it with — with him and Twitter? I mean, he kept making poorly judged tweets, you know, “I’m taking Tesla back private.” I mean he gets in trouble over and over and over, even with his brother and all his advisors saying, “Stop tweeting!”
WALTER: At one point, his best friend, Antonio Gracias, and his brother Kimbal, and they’re traveling, and Antonio says, “I’m going to take your phone away from you. And I’m going to put it in the hotel safe and punch in the code myself, so you can’t keep tweeting in the middle of the night after a bit of Ambien and Red Bull.” And he calls the hotel security people and makes them open the safe at 3 am. There’s an addiction. It’s like he loves the flame thrower for the thumbs, and it’s part of his personality to be so addicted to the drama of a tweet.

But then Musk offered to buy Twitter for $44 million. And then he tried to back out. And then was legally forced to follow through.

He promptly fired over 80% of the company, reinstated Donald Trump, and loosened the rules against hate speech and misinformation. Advertisers dumped Twitter like hot bricks. 

And just when Twitter couldn’t seem more like a dumpster fire, Musk learned that Twitter’s server farm in Sacramento was costing the company $100 million a year—and decided, impulsively, to rip those Sacramento computers out and move them into the company’s Portland server farm. 

WALTER: And they said, “Well, that’s impossible, we were relying on those for this.” He says, “What do you mean that’s impossible?” They said, “Well, impossible to get out there.” He went on Christmas Eve with two of his cousins with pliers they got from Home Depot. Went into that server thing, and cut the cables and move the servers out.

Delete, delete, delete. And in this case, mistake, mistake, mistake.

WALTER: And so, when Ron DeSantis is gonna do his presidential announcement on Twitter, the service doesn’t work all that well. 

Yeah… that’s putting it mildly. Here’s what the announcement actually sounded like:

Sacks: The man sitting next to me, Elon Musk, might have surprised many, but not those of us who’ve known and worked with Elon… (audio gibberish)
Voice: It’s still crashing, huh? (Whispering)
Musk: Um… we’re reallocating more server capability to be able to handle the load here…

And then, as though things weren’t weird enough, Musk renamed Twitter—X. It was a name that had intrigued him for decades.

WALTER: He loves the letter X. It’s mysterious to him. It’s dark to him. It’s the unknown.  There’s SpaceX. There was, his first payments company, that becomes PayPal. His son has a name that looks like a Druid auto-generated password, but they call him X.

He’s actually got 10 kids. But the kid Walter’s talking about is X. If you saw his full name written out, it would look like this: X, and then the AE character—you know, an A and an E mashed together, like in the old British spelling of encyclopaedia—and then A, and then the number 12, Musk. And how do you pronounce that?

Musk: I mean it’s just X, the letter X, and then the ae is like pronounced “ash.” Yeah, and then A12 is my contribution.

For decades, Musk has dreamed of creating a combination social media-slash-payment system like Venmo. Musk thinks X is going to be it.

POGUE: At every stage, people—experts—tell Elon Musk, “this won’t work. You can’t make an electric car company. You can’t create a private space company that will never work.”
WALTER: Right.
POGUE: Are we naysayers about how he’s ruined Twitter? Are we likely to look foolish five years from now?
WALTER: I think that he has ruined what was the old Twitter, which was a sweet clubhouse for blue-check people like me or you, in which you could have these calm conversations. And he’s driving it to be something more intense, something where content creators can make money, something that can be a financial platform. So yeah, I think he has destroyed in some ways that old Twitter, but I think we’d be underestimating him to think that he’s not going to create something on that platform.

I know all we talk about these days is Twitter—X. But don’t forget that there’s more to Elon Musk than Twitter-slash-X. And SpaceX. And Tesla. 

He’s also running his brain-implant company Neuralink; a tunnelling operation, hilariously called the Boring Company; Tesla’s solar-roof division and robot division; and a new artificial-intelligence company.

POGUE: Let’s talk about a little bit of his evolution on AI. So Elon Musk helped to found OpenAI, the company that makes what we now know as ChatGPT and Dall-E, the art program. And then he distanced itself and started a competitor?
WALTER: He’s driven by three great missions. One to make us multi-planetary, the other to bring us in sustainable energy. And the third, for the past 20 years, he’s worried about AI, artificial intelligence, running amok, doing things on its own.
And so early on, he and Sam Altman create OpenAI. It’s supposed to be open source. It’s supposed to have guardrails. And Elon Musk is not great at being partners with other people. So they have a bit of a falling out. And so he leaves OpenAI and starts his own group within Tesla to do artificial intelligence. So now he’s competing with OpenAI. He’s also starting to compete on the language model, that sort of generative AI like a chatbot.

And then there’s Starlink, a constellation of 5,000 satellites—planned to grow to 42,000 satellites in time—that can bring high-speed internet to the entire planet, including remote regions and disaster areas. Musk dreamed up Starlink as a way to generate the huge amounts of money he’ll need to get his Mars mission going—never mind the fact that astronomers on the ground curse his name, because those things block their telescopes’ view of the universe.

Anyway. Here’s where things get complicated.

Last year, Musk shipped thousands of Starlink terminals to help the Ukrainian military at no charge—but when he believed that Ukraine was going on the offensive, attacking Russian ships in Crimea last September, Isaacson wrote that Musk shut off their service there.

 WALTER: Musk felt that would lead to World War III. And so on his own, he decommissioned Starlink along the Crimean coast. 
POGUE: So how does Elon feel about having this much global power?
WALTER: Frankly, he loves it. He loves drama. He loves being the epic hero. I think it is a little bit dangerous, because he loves it too much.

Now, after that part of the book became public, Musk tweeted, “The Starlink regions in question were not activated. SpaceX did not deactivate anything.” Which created the remarkable situation in which a subject was contradicting his own biographer. 

Musk says, and Isaacson now acknowledges, that there had never been Starlink service in the Crimea region in the first place. Ukraine asked Musk to turn on service there, and Musk did decline.  

Simon & Schuster plans to fix the mistake in future printings of the book.

Told you things got complicated.

POGUE: So, has Elon seemed to become crazier and more unhinged as he goes along?
WALTER: Yeah. His politics have changed quite a bit. You know, he voted for Biden, but then certain things happened to him, including the fact that the Democratic Party has started attacking billionaires. His oldest child, Xavier, transitions, and becomes Jenna about three or four years ago. And more to the point becomes a Marxist and rejects him and, uh, wants to change her last name, and attacks him.
And he feels it was, uh, because of the “woke mind virus” that she picked up in the Los Angeles school called Crossroads. And he becomes very anti-woke, which keeps pushing him to the populist right. 
Now you got people on both sides of the spectrum, not knowing what to make of him or being huge fanboy or huge haters of him. 

But the “has Elon Musk gone off the rails” narrative may have reached its peak in a New Yorker article last month. Journalist Ronan Farrow wondered if Musk has actually become a national security risk. 

I mean, the U.S. government hires SpaceX to carry our astronauts into orbit, contracts with Starlink to connect our military, and plans to pay Tesla to open its network of electric-car charging stations to all drivers. We’re handing more and more responsibility to a guy who seems to be going more and more bananas. Here’s Farrow on CNN:

Ronan:  Elon Musk has behaved erratically at times, talking about his loneliness, his sadness, the fact that there have been questions about his psychopharmacology and public reports about, you know, the Tesla board being concerned about his Ambien use—
HOST: The ketamine use.
Ronan: The ketamine use. Yeah. He’s into ketamine, a psychedelic drug that’s showing incredible promise as a treatment for depression—but can also lower your inhibitions. 

So…I don’t know, man. Elon Musk is volatile, he’s a genius, he’s… complicated. 

POGUE: Is it possible for anyone to achieve what people like Jobs and Musk achieved in multiple industries, unless there were these kind of tyrant, crazy emotional wrecks?
WALTER: I don’t think you have to be driven by demons to be creative, but sometimes I think it helps. I think anybody from Albert Einstein, growing up Jewish and Germany when he did, or Leonardo da Vinci being gay and uh, born out of wedlock and a misfit, and then Elon Musk with his childhood…There’s certain demons that develop.
You know, I had a pretty nice childhood. My parents were great. I loved growing up in New Orleans. And I think gee, that’s wonderful. But I’ll never have the demons that drive me the way that a lot of people from Leonardo da Vinci to Elon Musk, growing up as misfits or with rough childhoods, that demons — those demons become their drive.
POGUE: Do you admire him?
WALTER: I’m mesmerized. And I respect the good things he does. And a biographer has to show the light and the dark strands, and you’ve got to be critical of the dark strands. You’ve got to be admiring of the light strands, but then the toughest thing is to show how they intertwine that you can’t just pull out the dark strands and keep the light ones.
POGUE: And how about his legacy? Do you think we’ll be talking about Elon Musk a hundred years after he is gone?
WALTER: I think there have a few people in our era who are deeply consequential. Steve Jobs was. He brought us into the whole new era, not only of smart phones, but everything from music to retail stores had transformed.
Elon Musk is similar. He brought us into the era of electric vehicles when GM and Ford had given up. He said, yes, we can shoot astronauts into orbit when NASA had decommissioned the space shuttle.
So a hundred years from now, well, still be baffled in some ways about how dark he could be, but we’ll say, yeah, yeah. He put his finger on the surface of history and the ripples came.

Screaming Babies, Noise Canceling, And You

[Season 2 • Episode 18. Published 9/1/23.]

In April 1978, MIT professor Amar Bose was flying home to Boston from Switzerland. But when he tried to listen to music through the airline’s headphones, he couldn’t hear a darned thing. He spent the rest of the flight doing acoustical math—and sketching out an idea for headphones that literally subtracted background noise from what you hear. Today, noise-canceling headphones are everywhere. But the revolution began with Amar Bose’s airplane sketches—and the 22-year, $50 million journey that led them to the ears on your head.

Episode transcript


Theme begins.

Last time I walked down an airplane aisle, I counted how many people were wearing noise-canceling headphones in flight. I mean, it was about one quarter of the passengers. These are headphones that literally subtract the noise around you from whatever music or movie you’re listening to. 

But inventing this technology was incredibly difficult. 

RULE: You know, in a perfect world, we’d glue something to your eardrum. And that would be fantastic. But nobody’s signing up for that. 

In the year 2000, Bose finally cracked the problem and brought consumer noise canceling headphones to the world. It had only taken 22 years and 50 million dollars. 

I’m David Pogue. And this is “Unsung Science.” 

First Ad

Season 2, Episode 18… Screaming Babies, Noise Canceling, and You.

In April 1978, MIT professor Amar Bose was flying back home to Boston from a business meeting in Switzerland. Yes, that would be Bose, as in the Bose Corporation, the audio-equipment company he’d founded in 1964, when he was 35 years old.

Now, by the mid seventies, plenty of airplanes had sound systems for passengers. Kind of. They were these long, flexible plastic tubes that plugged into audio sockets on the armrest. And on your end, they had foam earplugs. I mean, technically you could hear music, but it had all the audio fidelity of listening to AM radio over the phone.

But on this flight, things would be different.

Ursula:  In 1978, we were in Europe and on the way back. For the first time, they had actual headphones instead of just those tubes. And so he was pretty excited about that because it—oh my God, thank God. Finally, something that might sound, you know, decent.

That’s his widow, Ursula Boltzhauser, in a 2018 Bose video. 

GAUGER: And airlines were—at the time, in 1978—just in the process of switching over to what looked like Walkman, early Walkman headphones, because the Walkman had just been introduced and it was now possible to manufacture those headphones for very, very low costs, so the airlines were adopting. 

And that’s Dan Gauger, one of the two engineers who founded and built the company’s noise-canceling headphone division.

GAUGER: And Dr. Bose was excited. For once, he thought he’d have great music on that flight. 

Now, I will say this for the old flexible-plastic-tube contraption: Those foam earplugs at least plugged your ears. They shut out a lot of the airplane noise.

GAUGER: But the Walkman headphones didn’t. And by the time he turned the music up so loud that he could enjoy it, it was not enjoyable, and the noise was interfering. 

Ursula And put them on and realized that, well, with these things on your ears, the sound from the airplane came in much, much more. And he was very disappointed. 

“Avengers”-style hero music

So on that fateful day, Dr. Bose stood up at his seat, shook his fist at the heavens, and proclaimed, “I…am…BOSE! One of the greatest acoustical minds alive! Solving the problem of listening to music on airplanes is within my grasp!” 

OK, those may not have been his exact words. He may not have actually stood up. Or shook his fist. Or actually said anything at all. 

But here’s what he did do:

Ursula: So he took out a pad and pen and started writing equations. By the time we reached Boston, he had a which he thought might work.

A concept for headphones that would literally subtract background noise from what you hear. 

Here, in essence, was his idea:

GAUGER: So sound is—what is sound? It’s very small, rapid variations in the pressure of air. Slight deviations from the atmosphere at your local atmospheric pressure. 

Pogue: OK. 

GAUGER: And, you know, for the sort of sound what we are most effective at canceling, it’s varying, you know, one to two or three hundred times a second. 

POGUE: Okay. 

GAUGER: High pressure, low pressure, high pressure, low pressure. Now, you’re wearing an ear cup. Some of that outside sound gets to the inside of the ear cup. So when there’s a high pressure inside your cup, there’s more air molecules inside the ear cup. 

We  add microphones on the outside that sense the noise as it arrives at the headphone. And we figure out how to generate a signal to go into the speaker inside the headphone. 

We move the speaker back to make more room for the ear, and lower the pressure. 

RULE: The outside mic gives you a look ahead. You don’t have to wait until it shows up at the microphone before you say, “ah, I see this thing and I now need to do the opposite.” You’re like, “Well, no, I saw it coming, because I have a microphone facing outward. And as I can do the math fast enough, then I know what’s going to hit the inside of my ear before it gets there, right?”

That voice belongs to John Rule, a Bose engineer who specializes in noise cancellation.

So let’s see. When the external microphone senses a sound wave coming into the headphones, the little speaker inside the earcup literally moves. It moves back a minuscule fraction of an inch, in a minuscule fraction of a second, to make more space inside the earcup, thereby lowering the air pressure for that millisecond, therefore erasing the effect of the sound wave that came in from the plane noise around you. It cancels the noise.

So what’s it sound like?

RULE: For somebody who’s never had experience with this, you’d say, oh, it turns everything down by a factor of ten. We’re closing in on, you know, 50x, 80x reduction—so you could say, hey, everything gets quieter. 

So your first experience is like, “wow, everything got quieter!” You know, it doesn’t make the world silent, because that’s really hard, right? It’s nowhere near as annoying as it was when it was full volume, but, you know, it’s now—it’s like a whisper, but it’s kind of still there. 

It’s hard to demonstrate the effect on a podcast. I mean, I have no idea what you’re listening on right now! Is it headphones? Earbuds? Are you in your car? Listening through your phone’s speaker? Tablet? Laptop? TV? 

But let’s try. Here is an actual recording that Bose engineers made on an actual plane—not a flight I myself was on, although I swear, this same screaming baby somehow winds up on every other flight i take:

Baby before.aiff

And now, the same scene with noise cancellation—an actual recording, with no doctoring or funny business:

Baby after.aiff

Pogue: How come there aren’t certain times, certain frequencies, where the noise canceling sounds take out some of the music you’re hearing?

GAUGER: Well, the answer to that is—we’re not just trying to create silence. We’re servo controlling, or feedback controlling, to make the sound at the entrance to your ear be the music. The music is the command input to the feedback system. 

Pogue: Okay. So if there’s a certain frequency that is being canceled that is also a note in the music, you’ll just double that sound output?

GAUGER: Probably too simplistically—yes. Yeah. 

Pogue: You must be writhing inside. Oh, my God, this guy’s consumer-friendly description of something that took us 30 years to do… 

We interrupt this podcast to offer an apologetic production note.

Between the time we did this interview and the time of editing, the fantastic-sounding recording of ME, my end of the conversation, somehow got lost to the internet ether. We did have a backup of the interview—the audio from the Zoom meeting where the interview took place—so that’s what you’re hearing every time I speak in these interview excerpts.  

I know, it sounds like doo-doo. Which is especially embarrassing because this is an episode ABOUT AUDIO.

OK, moving on. 

We were talking about doing noise cancellation in real time. 

I mean, we’re describing how noise canceling works as though it’s, you know, “Oh, you just pump out air pressure out of phase hundreds of times a second, and voila!” But I hope you can appreciate what an astonishingly difficult feat that is to pull off. 

GAUGER: Imagine the surface of the ocean or even just of a pond, on a windy day with all the waves. The peaks of the waves are like high sound pressure—and the valleys are like low sound pressure. Try to imagine taking a plunger to make more waves. Stand in one spot in the lake and make more waves and try to make the surface of the lake smooth. 

With sound, it’s even—it’s more complicated. It’s three-dimensional. 

As Bose executives in that 2018 video recall:

Speaker 11:  There were many people in the company who would say, “Why are you wasting your time on this technology?”

Speaker 3:  “The concept that you could cancel sound with sound was the most ridiculous. It’s like putting somebody on the moon for me, right?”

Now here, I must insist that we pause the proceedings to make a very important point. 

There are long sound waves, and short sound waves. 

RULE: Low frequencies—if you think about the wavelength—low frequencies like 100 hertz, the wavelength is 12 feet, right?  

I’m going to play you a 100-hertz sound, meaning 100 vibrations per second. Those waves reaching your ear right now? 12 feet long.

100hz tone.

RULE: When you go to a kilohertz, it’s about a foot. 

Now here’s a one-kilohertz sound—1000 sound waves a second, ten times faster, each one a foot long.

1 khz tone. 

RULE: And when you go to ten kilohertz, it’s about an inch, roughly speaking. Right? 

And here comes a 10-khz sound. It’s really high, and the sound waves are really short. If you’re over 50 or listening on cruddy speaker, you may barely be able to hear it at all.

10 khz tone.

RULE: Higher and higher frequencies, you’re getting to smaller and smaller waves. And all of a sudden, the length between the the microphone and your eardrum becomes significant.  

Pogue: Oh, my gosh. I see. And that’s why they always say these things work best on low rumbles or, you know, medium airplane hiss.

GAUGER: You know, that’s—that’s a key part of it. Cancellation needs to have long wavelengths—more slowly changing sound—because we’re always chasing the sound that’s gone into your ear. We can’t cancel at ten kilohertz when the wavelengths get so short. 

That was a lot to absorb, but here’s the bottom line: These headphones do great at canceling low sounds, like the dull roar of plane engines or A/C units or subway rumbles. They do lousy at blocking high-pitched sounds—like screaming babies on planes. 

And for that reason, all the fancy math and electronics and speaker movement we’ve been talking about are responsible for only half the quietness you detect when you put on these headphones. To keep out the high pitches, they use an entirely different system—one that’s almost embarrassingly low-tech.

GAUGER: This is actually something that’s annoyed me for, you know, as I’ve watched cancellation become a real big thing in the consumer space—people use “cancellation” to refer to anything that lowers the noise that’s going into your ear. 

Pogue: Right. 

GAUGER: And that’s not the case. Cancellation is when you use an out-of- phase sound to cancel the sound you don’t want. There’s also attenuation—the physical blocking of the sound. And a well-designed headphone uses both of those. The physical blocking at high frequencies and cancellation at low frequencies. 

Pogue: So the fact that they’re earcups pressed against your head, that’s not just for comfort or good music sound—that gets you part of the way toward lowering the volume outside. 

GAUGER: That lowers the high frequency hiss. It doesn’t do much against low frequency rumble, particularly if you designed the headphones to be comfortable to wear.  

You know, I have worn things in research labs that have, you know, incredible pressure against the side of your head, and you want to scream after 30 seconds. And those will block, you know, a fair amount of sound, but they still can’t block the low frequencies very effectively. So the challenge is how to put low frequency cancellation, high frequency attenuation—passive attenuation—and comfort together in a small headphone that people can wear and carry and use and enjoy. 

If you watch YouTube videos about noise-canceling headphones, you often hear the term active noise cancellation, or ANC. That is just the electronic part, the part that blocks the low frequencies. That’s the part you can turn on or off with a switch. 

As for the part where the headphones just entomb your ears inside padded cups—that’s passive noise reduction.

Pogue: So, John, you indicated that by the time you get to the higher frequency sounds, these pressure waves are only an inch big.  

Pogue: Does that mean, then, that it’s a matter of physics and not technology? In other words, no matter how far we go into the future with …miniaturization and faster processors—is it possible you could ever do high frequencies as well as we do low ones?

RULE: It is hard—you know, we’re working on it. You know, there are other types of sensors we could imagine. We’ve looked at sensing vibrations on your skin directly. Not sure what that would look like in a headphone. 

Pogue: Wow. 

GAUGER: A lot of people have commented over the years that if you sit in some environment with a lot of rumble, like an airplane or a bus or a train, you put on the headphones, it’s like you hear the voices around you better with the headphones. 

Pogue: Yeah. 

GAUGER: And that’s because this region where it’s active cancellation at low frequencies and passive reduction in high frequencies, they don’t stitch together completely smoothly and flat. There’s a range of frequencies in the middle where there’s a lot of voice energy. Where we’re least effective when you put these things together. And so the headphones knock the rumble down but let some of the voices through. 

OK, so back to our history lesson: Dr. Bose hired my guest Dan Gauger to develop these headphones in 1980. By 1986, they had a prototype. 

GAUGER: But we had some, you know, challenges in front of us. You know, Bose at the time was a much smaller company. We’d never designed a headphone. When we looked at the costs of trying to create a product, it was way out of range of anything that could be a consumer product. And we got involved in the Voyager project in ‘86.  

Ah, yes, the Voyager project. It was an attempt to make the first non-stop, around-the-world flight in an airplane. A specially designed, weird-looking, super-light, carbon-fiber airplane. 

Narr: The voyager begins to lumber down the long runway. Its attempt to fly around the world is beginning. 

Anyway, because the plane was built to weigh as little as possible, it had no insulation. It was incredibly loud inside. 

The pilots would be sitting right next to deafening engines; the flight engineers calculated that by the end of the nine-day trip, the pilots would have lost 30% of their hearing. Probably not something they looked forward to.

Dan Gauger cold-called the Voyager team and invited them to try out his noise-canceling prototype. The two pilots, Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeagar, tried out the headphones during their test flights; they were sold. On the day of takeoff, they became the first pilots ever to wear noise-canceling headphones. 

Ultimately, the Voyager flight was successful—they flew around the world in what amounted to a flying fuel tank, breaking all kinds of records. Here’s how CNN covered the landing:

CNN: “10 feet…6 feet.” “Down on the ground.” “Yeah-hah!” “It’s down!” “Welcome home.” “A feat no one ever thought was possible has occurred here at the Edwards Air Force Base.”

Unfortunately, the headphones conked out partway through the flight, as depicted in the 1992 TV documentary show Frontiers of Flight:

Narr: With two engines running, the noise was deafening. The electronic noise cancellation system had failed early in the flight. And the only things that saved them from permanent hearing loss were the form-fitting headphones that blocked out the worst of the sound waves. 

Even so, the Voyager experience taught the Bose team some important lessons. 

Gauger: That actually proved to be very, very valuable experience because—our early prototypes, the focus was just on active cancellation. We discovered as we started making headphones for people that, yeah, you really got to balance the active and the passive. And if it’s not comfortable to wear, it’s not a great solution. 

Active cancellation isn’t about more noise reduction. It’s about more comfort in noise. You put up with a lot of physical discomfort if the noise is really, uncomfortably loud. The challenge is to bring the physical discomfort of wearing something and the auditory discomfort of the noise down and balanced. And that’s what enabled us to go into the consumer market along with, you know, making things in China. 

In 1989, Bose introduced the world’s first active noise-canceling headphones, sold exclusively to pilots: A super-bulky, super-chunky device called the Bose Aviation Headset. It was a game-changer, because pilots could now hear radio communications without cranking the volume up to 11.

GAUGER: The first challenge was to try to find a customer, to find places like aviation, which is a very specialized consumer business where there’s lots of low frequency noise—talking about private pilots—that we could get a foothold in and we could keep learning. 

It’s relevant, by the way, that Dr. Bose never took the company public. If a company like that had stockholders to please, a 22-year R&D project that cost 50 million bucks would never have lasted that long. As Bose said in one 2004 interview, “I would have been fired a hundred times at a company run by MBAs.”

GAUGER: It took a lot of patience and protection from Dr. Bose. 

Pogue: What do you mean? 

GAUGER: Well, there were executives, in kind of our darkest days in the late nineties, who very much wanted to shut us down. 

Pogue: Because it was costing so much money and nothing was coming out of it yet? 

GAUGER: We were just a drag on the company’s balance sheet. And we are a privately-held, long-term thinking company, but we do have accountants and finance people who, you know, try to provide sage advice. 

Pogue: So how do you measure the effectiveness of these earbuds and earphones? Is there some fake head with microphones where your eardrums would be?  

RULE: When we’re in the lab, we have these tiny little canal mics on these really, really skinny, skinny little wires, and we stuff ‘em in your ear. So this is what the engineers do in our free time, right? We go into a big, very reverberant lab room and we stick microphones down our ear canals, and then we measure—so we, we can measure the performance of all these different stages. 

In a perfect world, we’d glue something to your eardrum. And that would be fantastic. But nobody’s signing up for that. 

GAUGER: There are, you know, mannequin heads, acoustic fixtures that you can measure headphones on. But if you really want to know what goes on in human beings, you have to measure on human beings. And you have to, you know, accommodate the variation across different people’s ears. 

Pogue: Yeah, I was going to say. I mean, if the whole problem to solve is that everybody’s ears are different, then no mannequin is going to do it for ya. 

GAUGER: Exactly. 

RULE: Exactly. 

Finally, in 1998, the noise-canceling headphones did start making money for the company. Both because they were a hit with airline pilots and the military, and because American Airlines began offering a streamlined pair to first-class passengers.

In 2000, the Bose QuietComfort headphones became available to everyone, and the rest is air-travel history. Noise cancellation makes the music or the movie you’re playing much easier to hear. And because you can listen to your music without cranking it to top volume, to rise above the roar, noise cancellation protects your hearing. As a handy bonus, 

Pogue: Sometimes you hear people say, “oh, it actually makes you arrive at the airport less fatigued...” How much of that is marketing baloney, and how much of it has been shown by studies? 

GAUGER: Ah, it’s not marketing baloney. It’s been decades since I’ve looked at the results of those surveys, but my memory is that something like 70% of the people responded that they felt less fatigued, particularly after like an international flight. And we never asked the question about fatigue—they were volunteering that information. 

I’ve seen some not-very-high-quality research papers about this that say that low frequency noise does tend to put you to sleep. You know, so—by making it go away, one would think that you’d be more relaxed, rested, less tired, from having been battered by that noise. 

By the way, Amar Bose was not the first person who ever thought of canceling sound waves in real time. For example, in 1934, a German engineer applied for a patent—not for headphones, but for canceling sound in one-dimensional situations, like in a duct. He didn’t actually build anything. And then, in the mid-fifties, an RCA engineer built a prototype of a noise-canceling headphone, but it never left the lab. It appears that Bose, the man, came up with the idea independently, and Bose, the company, was the first to commercialize it.

OK…so much for the history of noise canceling. What about the future?

That’s the best part. And I’ll tell you about it after the commercials.

Second Ads 

Before the break, I hinted that there’s more to the story of noise-canceling headphones—that the science still has somewhere to go.

Pogue: Is there such thing as noise cancellation in a room? 

RULE: It’s hard from a physics standpoint. When Dan was back actually inventing noise canceling headphones, I was in a post-doc lab looking at doing cancellation in airplanes—like in the entire body. That’s, you know, that’s what they want. They’re like, “can we just make the airplane quiet,” right? 

You know, it’s this giant 3-D problem. And the only place we care about is, you know, the entrance to your ears. 

In principle, if you had a microphone in a room and you had a speaker in a room, you could do the same kind of math, right? You could, you could sense a point in space and you could, you know, you can have a driver close to it. And you could cancel at that point in space. But everywhere else in the room would still be loud, right? And if you had two microphones, you could make two locations quiet. And if you had 100 microphones, you could make 100 locations quiet with the same math. But you see where this is going, right? It’s, it’s not practical to make all-room noise canceling.  

GAUGER: Now, under specific circumstances, you can start to do things. So you can do cancellation in a car. It’s a small space, much larger than an ear cup. You can’t do it to as high a frequency and as well as we can in an ear cup because of that. And you’re relying on the fact that you’re just going after the repetitive tonal characteristics from the, you know, turnover of the engine, the R.P.M. of the engine. So you can sense that—so—and, you know, get a little bit of a prediction ahead as to just what frequencies to go after. So under no circumstances you can do it in a larger space. Headphones are unique and special. 

Now, if you’ve been listening closely, you may have caught that part about the middle frequencies. Today’s headphones eliminate low sounds using noise cancellation circuitry, and higher ones by enclosing your ear in padded earcups. But there’s a gap in the middle register—the one where human voices live. 


GAUGER: This region where it’s active cancellation at low frequencies and passive reduction in high frequencies, they don’t stitch together completely smoothly and flat. There’s a range of frequencies in the middle where there’s a lot of voice energy. Where we’re least effective when you put these things together. 

You may also remember that one of the biggest challenges of designing this stuff is that everyone’s ears are different.

RULE: You need to be able to take it out of the box and put it on anybody’s head and have it deliver them good performance. And that is hard, right? Getting it—getting a system together where the human head is a part of the system, right? 

Everybody’s ear canals are a little bit different. I always thought all ears were the same. And then I started working at Bose and started looking at ears very carefully. I was like, “Wow, they’re all really different.” You know, you just kind of don’t notice this. 

We need to solve that problem. We need to solve the problem of, how do we deal with head-to-head variability? Because we’re leaving performance on the table by not customizing to every single head we go after. 

And there they sat: Two problems that nobody had yet licked. Two related problems. If they couldn’t solve the ear-socket variability problem, then they’d never be able to lick the full-spectrum noise-reduction problem.

Well, after working at Bose for 38 years and shepherding the world’s first noise-canceling headphones into existence, Dan Gauger was approaching retirement. But he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory—or at least a blaze of engineering triumph. He wanted to lick those two problems. He wanted to see noise-canceling finished. 

Well, this year, according to John Rule, 

RULE: We’ve solved the problem, or at least  taken a big swing at understanding the differences in everybody’s heads and delivering the best performance we can give to each individual person. 

Pogue: Your headphones have been called, you know, QC 15, 25, 35, 45—is this going to be called the 55?

Rule: It’s going to come out in earbuds. 

Pogue: No way!

Rule: Because this problem is easier to solve in earbuds than in ear cups. 

Pogue: Why?

Pogue: Because the earbuds sit in your ear the same way every time. You know, if I take this, this  headphone I’m wearing and push, push it around on my head, push it back, push it forward a little bit—the process—the coupling changes. Earbuds are much more consistent. 

Pogue: Oh, really? I mean, it seems like—it seems like—you go to earbuds—then, you’re losing some of the, you know, the passive noise cancellation of the cups. 

RULE: Not as much as people think. Your outer ear is not the thing that does the hearing, right? It’s the hole in the side of your head that goes to your eardrum. So earbuds are very, very good at going right into that hole, right where you need it. They do provide, you know, enough passive. And then the active system can deliver as much performance as, as big earcups can. 

Pogue: What’s it called, and how do you do this customization? 

RULE: It’s called QuietComfort Earbud 2. We already have some QuietComfort earbuds on the market, but they’re, you know,  they’re a little large and have some other issues.  

But the QuietComfort 2  has been modified to, to closely couple the acoustics to your ear canal. So that was step one. 

And then we had to have a control system that would actually be able to deal with that variability. 

There’s no app. You’re just going to put these things in. They play a little startup tone and the startup tone has the measurement in it and the math is done before the tone has finished playing. 

We’ve figured out a way to basically get  a very, very fast measurement that happens instantaneously when you put the earbuds on and customizes your filter before you even know it. 

In other words, these earbuds actually take measurements of your ear socket every time you put them in. Based on the actual shape and volume of your actual ears, and based on how you’ve inserted them this time, they reshape the noise cancellation algorithms on the fly. You turn them on, they make this chime—


—and little tiny microphones listen for the acoustics of your ear. 

Pogue: How close do the buds come to matching the noise cancellation of the cups? 

RULE: These earbuds will provide more noise canceling than anything we’ve made, and anything that our competitors have made. 

GAUGER: If you get a good fit, it is markedly quieter than anything else out there. 

Now, I have no interest in being a marketing shill for Bose. They didn’t pay me to make this episode—I approached them about it. I don’t even get so much as a discount. We are gathered here today purely to talk about the science, which they developed. 

But I can confidently say that these earbuds do the most complete noise-cancellation job ever brought to market. I went to their grand unveiling in New York City last September. All these critics and reviewers showed up. Bose had set up an enormous room, with huge speakers all around, that blasted out a series of noisy soundscapes—major city sounds, aircraft interior, drunken party next door—and I’m telling you, these earbuds turned that noise into silence. Almost complete silence. Absolutely freaky. 

For example: This is the “before” recording:

office before.aiff

And here are the new earbuds with full noise canceling turned on::

office after.aiff

And sure enough—the reviewers went nuts.

YouTuber: The noise canceling is really impressive, probably the best out there right now.

Josh: And let me tell you. If you want the best noise cancellation available today,  these earbuds are probably it. It just cuts everything out.

Youtuber: Out of everything I’ve tested, it cancels the most noise.

You know what? I don’t use those new amazing earbuds. I wish I could, but I can’t. Because—my ears aren’t even close to normal.

I have a birth defect. Like thousands of other otherwise healthy babies each year, I was born without an antitragus. 

The antitragus is the little piece of cartilage along the bottom of your earhole that supports earbuds from underneath. At least on your head. I don’t have it at all. So regular earbuds do not stay in my ears.

End music. 

Pogue: How much can I look forward to these new earbuds fitting me and staying in and working?  

RULE: We have this thing called a fit kit, where we’ve separated the tip from the little rubber ring, right?

You can find one of the three sizes that fits into the hole, and then one of the three sizes that sort of sticks to the, you know, the slightly outer part of your, you know, part of your ear. And we’ve spent a lot of time on that. We’ve measured hundreds of heads, scanned ears to, you know, to figure this out. Because as we said earlier, everybody’s all a little bit different. 

Well—it didn’t work on me. The buds kept falling out of my ears, no matter which tip size I used, no matter which support ring I attached. The Bose staff kept passing me higher and higher up the executive chain at this unveiling event, and nobody could make them stay in. I mean, this doesn’t affect most people. But it breaks my heart. I really want that kind of noise cancellation!

Pogue: Could this technology eventually be brought over to a cup?

RULE: There are some different challenges with cups, but it’s certainly something we’re working on. 

Today, lots of companies make noise-canceling headphones and earbuds. People say the latest Sony headphones have caught up to Bose’s headphones, although nobody’s caught up to those new Bose Earbuds.

And it all stemmed from Amar Bose’s 1978 flight to Boston. 

Oh yeah—about Dr. Bose. He spent many years teaching at MIT during the day, and running Bose Corporation on the side. Here’s him teaching an MIT acoustics class in 1995.

Bose: There’s nothing like having done something and worked and worked and worked on it. And it’s like going through many, many, many blind alleys, and you finally get something… that satisfaction is enormous. And there’s another degree of it, which shouldn’t be, but it is. If what you were trying to do  was thought to be impossible by others, you get more satisfaction. That’s pure ego. It shouldn’t be, but it is!

In 2011, two years before he died, he made an appointment to see Susan Hockfield, then the president of his beloved MIT. He said he had a gift to bestow.

Susan:  I came into my office. And I remember exactly how we were sitting. And he told me that he had decided to give the majority of the Bose corporation to MIT. 

That’s right. He gave the company to MIT. Nonvoting shares, so MIT has no control—only the rewards of the company’s success.

Susan And I remember sitting there with  tears coming to my eyes, and looking at him, trying to figure out what he had just said. And I stammered insufficient thanks. 

Windup music begins.

You know, it’s cool having a podcast where you can go after great unsung inventors like these guys. For me, noise canceling headphones have always seemed like magic—and now I get to hear the magicians explain the trick. And just this once, finding out the answer isn’t disappointing; this time, it’s equally cool to find out how it’s done. RULE: And now we’ve gotten to the place where it’s like, airplanes are not the only place, the only place in your life that’s noisy. City streets are noisy, subways are noisy, buses are noisy. Your house, if it’s full of other people, is noisy. And, you know, sort of recognizing that there’s a way to control, you know, kind of the noise in your environment—you know, just like putting on sunglasses if the sun is too bright—you’re like, well, “the noise is too loud. Let’s turn it down!”