Channeling Jules Verne, A Measure Of Elon Musk's Ambitions

A Tesla Trip To The Moon
A Tesla Trip To The Moon
Mathieu Laine


PARIS — He is "a man of about forty-two years of age, of large build, but slightly round-shouldered. His massive head momentarily shook a shock of reddish hair, which resembled a lion's mane." This isn't a description of Elon Musk, but of Michel Ardan, one of the characters in Jules Verne's 1865 novel From The Earth To The Moon.

Michel Ardan — that name suddenly brings back so many childhood memories! The character was inspired directly by one of the French author's close friends, the daring aeronaut and photographer Félix Nadar, whose last name is a perfect anagram of Ardan. Verne's chivalrous hero, with the bright and facetious personality, was immortalized by the famous engravings that adorned these beautiful and large red and golden books of the Voyages extraordinaires series that also included Journey to the Center of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Many of us would pluck one of the volumes from our grandparents' bookshelves; maybe first out of boredom, but then quickly setting off on our own fantastic journeys.

Fast forward to our present time and it's no longer Around the Moon (the 1870 sequel, with Ardan still the novel's main character) that our gaze turns to, but rather toward Mars. That's where Elon Musk now aims to colonize. And it probably takes just as much madness for the founder of Tesla as it took Ardan when the hero sent his famous telegraphic dispatch: "Substitute for your spherical shell a cylindro-conical projectile. I shall go inside." And indeed, it takes a bit of madness — not only to dream of such democratization of space travel, but also to overcome, one-by-one before our amazed eyes, the technological steps needed to achieve what we had previously thought would never go beyond the realm of science fiction.

Reality catches up with fiction, and vice-versa.

When talking about the SpaceX CEO, many point to his disproportionate ego. Others go as far as identifying, behind the mind-blowing videos of the Tesla car he sent into orbit, falsehood, lies or even a conspiracy intended to make cognitive sociologists drool. And yet, the ability to recover the first stage of Falcon 9 rockets — and with style! — is a revolution in terms of technology and cost structures of an industry that was once the monopoly of governments.

Tesla founder Elon Musk — Photo: pureexperiment

Musk's numerous industrial projects mesmerize. From his Dragon spacecraft to his ultra-fast Hyperloop earth transport, to his project of a supersonic electric airplane that can take off and land vertically, not to mention the idea of building machines capable of digging tunnels (he was, according to legend, stuck in a traffic jam and dreamed of getting out of it by operating a gigantic drill to pierce through the asphalt), PayPal and Neuralink, a company that aims to improve our cognitive capabilities thanks to electronic brain implants. What fascinates most about him is this special dynamic that makes some constantly try to push back the limits imposed by nature and current technologies.

The co-founders of Google are also part of such grand plans, with their transhumanist project that aims to push back or even kill death itself, as Laurent Alexandre analyzed in his 2011 book La Mort de la mort (The Death of Death). Reality catches up with fiction, and vice-versa. Musk is made of the same alloy as Hank Rearden, the inventor of Rearden Metal and lover of Dagny Taggart in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Philip K. Dick gave us the dark version, inviting us to seriously consider the ethical complexity of machines turning against their human makers in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

This permanent instinct for progress also sends us back to two other non-fiction works. In one of the greatest works of the end of the last century, Daniel Boorstin's The Discoverers presents us with a gripping story of man's greatest epic: the discovery and mastery of our own world, from Christopher Columbus' America to Albert Einstein's relativity. If there are great leaders in politics, there are even greater to be found in this insatiable and frenetic quest for knowledge and surpassing our current reality. Perhaps that's even truer today, at a time when information is consumed through sharing, in a spirit of permanent "cooperation," and at a time of acceleration, with four revolutions feeding each other: nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, computing and cognitive sciences.

One cannot resist the temptation to see Musk as a Vernian hero.

Change can be frightening, as it has been at every stage of our history. But in the end, all these advances end up being digested, domesticated and controlled. Because, as Julian L. Simon summed up so well in his work, in the end, the human race is our last chance. SpaceX's Falcon 9 obviously doesn't look anything like the sort of gigantic cannonball imagined in the 19th century by the Gun Club in From the Earth to the Moon. The story told by Jules Verne, who was a scientific novelist as well as a geographer, is that of the genesis, in the aftermath of the American Civil War, of the global financing of a "cylindro-conical projectile" and of the crazy idea of sending three people on board before its launch into orbit.


Re-reading this predictive feat, the style of which is undeservedly disdained, one cannot resist the temptation to see Musk as a Vernian hero. With his thirst for curiosity, knowledge and overcoming challenges, he would easily take on the proud flight of Impey Barbicane, the president of the Gun Club, when he says: "It is perhaps reserved for us to become the Columbuses of this unknown world." As for Michel Ardan, whom the novel describes as "one of those originals which nature sometimes invents in the freak of a moment, and of which she then breaks the mold," we might be tempted to find a way to organize a meeting with the SpaceX founder. But don't tell that to Elon Musk. He might just try and make it happen!

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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