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What's the difference between giving your money to Gates vs Musk?

Here's one way to look at it: When you give your money to Gates you generally know what you're going to get - stamping up diseases, immunisation and lots of other great stuff.

When you give your money to Musk, you don't. It's much less clear. You don't know what problems he's going to tackle. You don't know how he's going to tackle them. And you don't know if he'll succeed.

1. Giving your money to Bill is like investing in a tried-and-tested branch of science or technology with measurable possible outcomes.

2. Giving your money to Elon is like investing in an absolutely cutting-edge branch of science. At the absolute bleeding-edge. Maybe even beyond the bleeding-edge.

Both are important. Here's a story to show you why.

One day back in the 1930s, before the war, all the academics in the USA found an unusual survey in their pigeonholes. It asked them to rank all the various academic departments in the USA by importance. Most important at the top. Least important at the bottom. They were asked to use their intuitions - what did they feel were the most and least relevant to the future of humanity.

After the academics filled in these surveys, their responses were gathered up and collated into a league table with the 'most important' disciplines at the top, and the least at the bottom. What was at the top? All the usual suspects like branches of physics, chemistry and biology.

What was at the bottom? Right at the bottom was Medieval History. The very least important academic subject. So far, so unexpected. But second to bottom was Nuclear Physics. Before the war it was considered a useless, hypo-theoretical branch of science only studied by nuts and eccentrics.

Of course, not much longer later the US dropped 2 bombs on Japan ending the nuclear war.

If we'd only funnelled our money in those things with obvious tangible, well-defined outputs, we'd have shut down our nuclear physics departments and the world would have been a very different place.

What I'm saying is that investing in long-sighted, ill-defined, radical, impractical projects is not only valuable but essential.

Dropping money to people like Bill is important. But so is dropping money to Elon.

One of them ensures that we continue to make sustainable progress - that we continue down the road that we're already walking. The other ensures that we have the opportunity to find new roads, new paths and new routes.

>2. Giving your money to Elon is like investing in an absolutely cutting-edge branch of science. At the absolute bleeding-edge. Maybe even beyond the bleeding-edge.

Elon Musk runs engineering companies. They are certainly not at "the absolute bleeding edge" of science though.

If you want to fund science, then fund science. Scientists and their graduate students actually do work at the bleeding edge of science and routinely push beyond it with only a small, small, fraction of what these billionaires make.

Precisely this. Elon is a genius, and absolutely one of the greatest men alive. But we must understand that he is an engineer, not a scientist. The fact that he had to put his own money into an ambitious engineering project just goes to show how ridiculously conservative most investors are. Is it any surprise then, that basic science funding from profit driven investors is so abysmal?

We need the NIH, we need the NSF, we need CERN, now more than ever. Basic science is the only way to get significantly more return from a dollar invested, but nobody wants to pay upfront. That is why we need taxpayer funding in basic science. Scientific breakthroughs will yield such massive dividends in the long run, that citizens would literally be spending on their own well being in a way that would otherwise be impossible. Discoveries such as vaccines, antibiotics, surgery, genetics and others have allowed humans to enjoy a standard of living unfathomable even a hundred years ago.

If politicians had any vision whatsoever, they would have instigated a New Deal with massive investment in scientific and engineering research projects. Yet what did they do? Feed banks infinite loans at prime to keep them afloat, so that banks can choose to continue lending on a profit driven schedule.

Guess who gets loans at prime from banks? Not the NIH, that's for sure.

>Elon ... is an engineer

Oh really? Where did he study engineering? When did he take the FE exam?

That's not a term that you can throw around all willy-nilly, especially in the context of hardware. Next, are you about to tell me that the CEO of Ford is also an engineer?

Musk describes himself as an engineer. I'd say his demonstrated ability to lead major engineering projects qualifies him to use that title.


The term "engineer" does not imply chartered/professional status in current popular usage.

I just looked it up. The CEO of Ford (Alan Mulally) holds a masters degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering (among others). If you only allow for the term "engineer" to be used to refer to someone who has en engineering educational background, then yes, he is.

Musk, on the other hand, holds a degree in physics. He started a PhD program on applied physics, but quit to pursue his entrepreneurial interests. If you judge engineers purely from an educational perspective, then yes, Musk is not an engineer.

Nonetheless, if we look at wikipedia's description of what "Engineer" means, we get:

> An engineer is a professional practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics, and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical problems.

So, by this definition, Musk is an engineer...

Alan Mulally (CEO of FORD) is a former Boeing engineer.

Given that some people go around calling themselves Happiness Engineer or Growth Engineer I highly doubt that people in SV care enough about the difference. Also you can major in Financial Engineering at Princeton so I don't really think people take the FE exam before calling themselves an engineer.

Although I do take issue with the above (happiness & growth) usage of the term, I'm completely fine with Elon calling himself an engineer because he actually did study engineering (albeit informally) via books, etc.

Precisely this? When is this not precise?


  1.  Used  to identify  a specific  person or  thing close  at hand  or being
      indicated or experienced
  1.1 Used to introduce someone or something
  1.2 Referring to the  nearer of two things close to  the speaker (the other,
      if specified, being identified by ‘that’)
  2.  Referring to a specific thing just mentioned
  3.  Used  to identify  a specific  person or  thing close  at hand  or being
      indicated or experienced:

More: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/this?q=...

"This" on its own as a word indicating agreement is a fairly recent usage.

Notably, the very definition you posted makes no mention of that usage. From that definition there is no way to tell if "This" on its own means "This predeceeding comment is completely wrong" or "This predeceeding comment is completely right".

Also, "precisely" indicates degree rather than the generalist term "this". For example, "I'll meet you at this time tomorrow" and "I'll meet you at precisely this time tomorrow" have different connotations for how accurate you are expecting to be.

Yes, but how do we "fund science"? We used to do that through the government, but now government funding of science is so broken primarily due to large segments of the US population being "anti-science" and voting that way thus those who control the purse strings don't see the value anymore. Maybe we need to start crowdsourcing scientific research?

Maybe we need to start crowdsourcing scientific research?

Like this?


The issue is the tangible results. You could put a lot of money in science and end up with a lot of dead ends. I think it would be better to think of it as investing in the cutting edge of science that has already been researched being implemented.

Perhaps it's fair to say that they're at the absolute bleeding edge of /applied science/?

After all, SpaceX's plans for a reusable rocket are certainly more ambitious than anything governments have been doing for the last several decades.

The internet, heaps of computing technology advances, several trips to the moon, space stations, and a shuttle program all have been done by the government "for the last several decades."

It is undeniably government funded, backed, and run research that has fostered the technological "magic" we see today. I wrote "undeniable" because it is a fact--not a conjecture, opinion, or item subject to debate. Government funded and government run research programs created our space-age technology (literally) and the internet, and fueled a great percentage of the other developments that have advanced our technology so rapidly in the last several decades.

Private companies (whether held privately or publicly traded) are mainly creatures of fear and risk aversion--even the ones that are relatively less so than others. There's nothing especially "bleeding edge" about SpaceX or Tesla, or just about anything else Musk has been involved with. Historically, it has usually taken a great thrust by the government to make big advances, whether through subsidies (i.e. corporate welfare) or direct involvement (NASA/DARPA).

And yet the US government was never able -- nor did they try -- to develop a fully-reusable rocket, which is something SpaceX is currently doing.

Saying that corporations are risk-averse followers is inane. Governments broadly fund a great deal of seed-level research. Sometimes they develop applications based upon it. Sometimes corporations get there first.

We're seeing an instance of the latter with SpaceX, I think.

What is inane about the statement regarding corporations? Generally speaking, unless there is a significant level of government backing or subsidy for the research, corporations just don't engage in it. There are of course exceptions here and there, but most of even that research is hardly bleeding edge. It's mostly very conservative iterations on the original research done by the government (or with government backing). This is true in medicine, space, computer, and just about any other human endeavor one can think of.

Aside from that, your statement about a fully-reusable rocket may technically be true (I suspect that NASA actually has investigated a 100%-reusable rocket, but don't know for sure), but it is trivial and unsupportive of your point, since the concept isn't ground-breaking (the shuttle was completely reusable, even if the delivery system was only partially reusable) or even very risky, given the decades of research and engineering that the government has put into space rocket technology. That was, in fact my point. "Being conservative and risk-averse" is not synonymous with "never does anything new."

I'm not sure about the US, but USSR developed one, the Energia II. It was AFAIK never built, it shared the destiny of the rest of the Energia/Buran programme, but they were certainly able and did try. I can't find any references ATM, but I'm pretty sure the US also had plans for a fully reusable Shuttle complex, before the whole thing got ridiculous in planning stages.

EDIT: And what's with the fixation on reusable rockets? It might lower some cost but it's hardly an amazing feat of science and engineering.

This presupposes that engineering companies don't (can't?) do bleeding edge research.

Having recently finished Black Swan and Antifragile I would argue for Taleb's investment advice: 80% to Gates earning you a stable and guaranteed, if not boring, improvement. 20% to Musk to provide you the maximum exposure to risk and therefore potentially unlimited upside.

The 80% is pretty much guaranteed to be put to good use. And even at the worst case for the rest, you only lose 20%.

I think it is much simpler than you described.

Investing in Musk would drive technology up. Technology is great multiplier, if you have infrastructure to multiply it with.

Investing in Gates would drive up quality of life and help to build infrastructure in the first place.

It is obvious that investing in both is optimal strategy as investment in one increases eventual value of other investment.

I agree that investing in both is optimal. I'm unclear, however, how quality of life builds infrastructure?

How much cheaper or more accessible will the future version of the connected tablet be in 1-2 generations (25-50 years)? 20 years ago mobile phones were rare, expensive and not very good. What if the availability of energy takes a huge leap.

Those things can have a profound effect on the productive capacity of a people born into it. Can the third world brands of 'education as a major challenge' be solved to the point where most kids have a decent chance by our standards? If those kinds of changes happen, part of that increase in productive capacity almost certainly will go into building infrastructure.

Honestly I think that part of investing on a horizon like this and betting on either ambitious charities, companies or even in scientific research is that it's hard to know. Some people leave their endowments to Art and I'm not sure you can really coherently argue against it.

People who aren't struggling to survive have the luxury to spend time working on other things, like infrastructure. There's no guarantee that will happen, though.

When you're no longer stressing about where you're going to get food for the next day, researching big ideas seems a lot more reachable

Can you give a citation for this 1930s survey?

The scientist who conducted the survey? Albert Einstein.

I'm not sure whether the survey is real or OP made it up, but I don't think it matters. The point is that "...investing in long-sighted, ill-defined, radical, impractical projects is not only valuable but essential."

It absolutely matters. It's a completely open question under which circumstances and to what extent we should trust expert opinion in planning the future. "...investing in long-sighted, ill-defined, radical, impractical projects is not only valuable but essential" is a rather useless platitude without further data--as in actual facts--because such long-range projects run the gamat from promising to useless to actively negative.

Besides which, we weren't providing that much funding to nuclear physics before the War.

We only funded the Manhattan Project after the War had already started, and after nuclear fission had already been demonstrated in the lab. In Germany, mind you.

In other words, we didn't get the atomic bomb by lavishly funding the second least useful field of science. We got it by funding what was already known at the time to be the most promising weapon of mass destruction.

People had been writing about the possibilities of atomic energy since Rutherford. In fact, H. G. Wells even wrote a book, prior to the First World War, on how nuclear weapons would make it possible to destroy human civilization. (He got the details wrong about how the weapon worked, but he appreciated the enormous energies involved.)

A bunch of medieval historians may not have appreciated nuclear physics, but the real experts already knew of its potential. It was, after all, Albert Einstein who helped get the ball rolling on the Manhattan Project, by signing that letter and lending his celebrity to the cause.

If its real, a citation would be great. Its a fantastic story worthy of sharing, (presuming its not a fabrication).

Either that story is not true or it is beside the point. Nuclear fission was the huge topic of physics research in the 30's and the potential to weaponize it was widely understood by physicists, and the government aggressively funded it (the government mind you, not private companies). To say that nuclear physics was considered an irrelevant field by the scientific community in the 30's is just not true.


Is Musk capital constrained? Does he have projects out there that he'd like to do but can't get investors for? This seems doubtful to me. Whereas stamping out malaria is always capital constrained.

I'm sure if given enough capital he'd love to immediately switch into deploying a Manned mission to Mars, the Hyperloop, mass producing the economy electric sedan at 300 MPC for like $25k. All his businesses have capital constraints, but that just means they are healthy businesses. We should all know what happens when you give a startup too much money too fast.

You're kidding, right? He only had enough money to type up a PDF and cannot even afford to host it on its own site, he has to use his companies' sites.



It is on its face obviously severely capital-constrained.

saw this stat today on twitter (from TED 2014): "gutenberg invented the printing press when only 8% of europeans knew how to read"

Medieval History is important for Christians to study to protect them from making the same mistakes (i.e., The Crusades).

Disclaimer: I'm a Christian.

It is also important so that Christians realize they'd be Muslims now, if it wasn't for those "mistakes". Disclaimer: I'm an Atheist.

How did sacking Constantinople prevent Christians from becoming muslims?

That also assumes that Islam would have gone unchanged, as well.

This assumes that no other events would have changed history.

That's true of all history. As in the George Santayana adage: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Consider also how much money was invested during WWII in mystics and parapsychologists and look at how well all that turned out. I don't think that you can really say that with confidence, that Elon's money is as well-deserved or well-invested as Bill's.

How is Elon Musk comparable to mysticism and parapsychology? A physics-major working on engineering challenges like space travel, electric cars, and renewable energy... Elon Musk's pursuits are at least based in science, its the business viability that is unknown at the beginning

Elon Musk's work is based on our best guesses about how the world works. "Crazy" stuff in the past was based on our ancestor's best guesses about how stuff works.

The only difference is hindsight. Bullshit artists distort things as much today as they did in the past.

There's a key difference: Elon Musk is delivering results.

The scientific method enables one to deliver results because its models are predictive, not merely explanatory. The engineering and science we do today is also predictive because it relies on models cultivated within this methodology.

Equating today's "best guesses" with those in medieval or ancient times is absolutely inane.

Agree with the overall text of your comment but I think this part was not what you meant to write:

> Of course, not much longer later the US dropped 2 bombs on Japan ending the nuclear war.

>If we'd only funnelled our money in those things with tangible, well-defined outputs, we'd have shut down our nuclear physics Departments and the world would have been a very different place.

What? Are you suggesting that the US wouldn't have researched Nuclear weapons if we had started sooner?

No, the point being made is that we wouldn't have been as far along as we were had we cut funding to such an impractical field.

A lot of engineering and basic research seems quite pointless until it, well, isn't.

I think ekpyrotic is suggesting that pre-WW2 Nuclear Physics would not have fallen under the category of "things with tangible, well-defined outputs." So the suggestion is that the US would not have researched Nuclear Weapons if they had decided not to fund Nuclear Physics research.

Actually US did not founded atomic research. It was kick started by French, English and to some extend Germans. Manhattan was mostly developed by immigrants from Europe.

very nice write-up, thanks for writing this.

Edit: just so you are not our own little Malcolm Gladwell though, a [1] would have been nice.

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