[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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 X.com, 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.”
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.