Elon Musk is a one stop, pop culture to STEM recruiting shop, and that’s a good thing

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk celebrates the success of Falcon Heavy's 2018 launch debut. (SpaceX/National Geographic)


This column will be unabashedly full of pop culture references in honor of its topic. Check out the end of the piece for a Where’s Waldo-style treasure hunt to identify where they are. And by that I mean like the list at the back of the book. Or the companion list on the main pages under the scene descriptions. No, definitely more like the back of the book.


You may have noticed that Elon Musk has something of a cult following. (awkward pause for audience laughter)

Seriously, though. Have you ever wondered how the nerdy PayPal guy whose epidermis was showing a bit much became not just the purveyor of cool tech, but a standard of cool to which all others within similar realms are measured? Personally, I’ve become so accustomed to that reality that I forget there was a time when rockets couldn’t land themselves and $TSLAQ wasn’t a thing.

Speaking of cults, those guys should hand in their soda machine rings and retire already, no?

In my opinion, Elon Musk’s overall fusion of popular culture with both his businesses and public persona gives him a unique resonance with people – their resonance. And that’s a good thing when considering all the places he’s trying to take humanity.

As the “pop culture” chief executive, he clearly communicates how leading the ship of change is much more than just walking to the front and declaring himself king. He has to pitch the ship, show the blueprint, obtain the funding for construction, find the contractors, build it, employ people to run it, then campaign for customers, sell the tickets, and finally, sail the ship full of normal people, movie stars, a skipper, millionaires, their spouses, professors, and possibly someone named Mary Ann, all without crashing.

By the way, when I say “culture” I mean memes, movie quotes, cartoon references, sci-fi tributes, and Twitter conversations. Let’s assume my knowledge of philosophy pretty much begins and ends with Dr. Ellie Sattler’s outlook as conveyed to Jeff Goldblum.

There are a lot of technical languages needed to understand the many parts of Musk’s multifaceted journey, but there’s one language that unites them all – inspiration. This is where Musk’s immersion in pop culture comes in. He knows how to derive action plans from inspirational concepts because they inspire him, too. I think this is all an amazing benefit for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) recruiting and mainstream STEM interest.

It’s easy to get lost in the woods of what Musk is trying to accomplish if you’re not careful, and that drives people to learn more so they understand. Electric cars have things like production lines, battery chemistry, the electrical nuances of Superchargers, and business logistics; SpaceX is literally rocket science, meaning things like materials engineering, chemistry, and orbital mechanics are the blue Yoshis for Reddit cred; The Boring Company involves machinery details and political maneuvering, among other things; and Neuralink would benefit from Neuralink for a non-scientist’s true understanding of how Neuralink works.

As a layperson looking at these things, I’m surprised by what I’m willing to research just to keep up with what Musk is doing, and I’m probably a fraction of a percent informed compared to the average Musk enthusiast. Anecdotally, I think that happens because he communicates his ideas using ‘big picture’ type expressions like flying cars and great dining on a trip to Mars, which makes them relatable, relevant, and exciting. And tying it all together is the fact that he’s almost always going to do what he says he’s going to do plus more.

I mean, I’m sure Jeff Bezos is going to do all the things he’s said he’ll do with Blue Origin, but maybe what matters is less about how big your rocket is and more about how you plan to use it. The Saturn V was awe-inspiring not just because it was huge and powerful and the first of its kind. It was representing a human journey to a new frontier, and it brought a symbolic victory against an adversary that threatened the freedom of everything it touched. Falcon Heavy is awe-inspiring because of both its engineering and its role in the democratization of space travel. Starship is awe-inspiring because its first and primary purpose is to establish a human presence on another planet.

Bezos, on the other hand, has conquered human patience for the most part with Amazon and wants to give the ultra rich the ride of their life with Blue Origin. A $250,000 ticket to the Karman line for like 5 minutes of floating around in view of the Earth’s curvature is not exactly an everyday person thing. Good for those who can afford it, but not very inspiring for those who can never afford it. He’s also said things like, we’ll go to Mars “because it’s cool,” which is ironically not cool and gives the impression that he has a roommate named Patrick. SpaceX certainly has a “cool” factor, but people aren’t buying company mugs that say “Cool new hangout” across a picture of Mars when they’re filled with hot coffee.

Wow, I never knew trig would make its way into my writing…

For a specific example of Musk’s pop culture conversion to STEM interest I’m talking about, take The Boring Company. The whole venture started with a rant about traffic, was named such because it was a funny double entendre, and then was made even more amusing with Monty Python tie-ins and flamethrower merchandise inspired by Space Balls. Using pop culture, Elon Musk brought genuine, mainstream interest to the subject of public transportation logistics, no Rowan North required to give it a little extra spark.

This sort of public attention thing happens when big achievements or problems come up, sure. But there’s this one guy that keeps inspiring kids to go study STEM topics so they can work for his companies; this one guy keeps inspiring adults to start their own STEM ventures based on the ideas he’s promoting; this one guy keeps all of us thinking about what he’s doing and whether it’s going to work while admitting that, even if we have our doubts about whether it’s all feasible, it probably should work and we should maybe help it work.

Altogether, Elon Musk is a one-stop pop culture to STEM recruiting shop, and I think that’s a really good thing.

What do you think of Musk’s pop culture infusions into everything he does? Have any favorites? Any you wish weren’t a thing?


Find the following pop culture references in this column!

1. Bart Simpson breaks his leg
2. Homer Simpson joins a secret society
3. Titanic
4. Gilligan’s Island
5. Jurassic Park
6. Super Mario Brothers for Super Nintendo
7. Austin Powers: Goldmember
8. Spongebob Squarepants
9. Sine, Cosine, Tangent
10. Ghostbusters 2016

Elon Musk is a one stop, pop culture to STEM recruiting shop, and that’s a good thing
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