Superstar Innovators Don't Live in D.C.

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elon musk.jpgI'm inclined to think Washington, D.C., constrains, frames, levels, directs, empowers, and topples -- all of which can be important. In contrast, the west coast of the United States -- and many corners of the country outside the Beltway -- builds, innovates, creates, launches, discovers, struggles, figures out stuff, and designs the future. 

Anyone who has spent time in Silicon Valley or Seattle, Portland, San Diego, and more will quickly feel that innovators, scientists and engineers change the world far more than those of us in Washington.

I'm listening to spiritualist Deepak Chopra and physicist Leonard Mlodinow discuss their science vs. spirituality debate, now a book titled War of the Worldviews, and was prepared to dismiss it as hokey and unserious.  But both are clearly cutting-edge thinkers who are probing the opportunities and edges of science -- and then considering where spirituality and morality come in, though Chopra starts from that corner while Mlodinow makes a powerful case that mankind's advances are built on rationality, scientific endeavor, and constructive engagement with problems.

Last night, I listened to Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows engage Elon Musk, who co-founded PayPal, helped high school friends launch the very successful firm, Solar City, of which he's non-executive chairman, and now serves as CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX.  Musk told the audience that he doesn't start out trying to think about which arenas he wants to move into to make money.  Rather, he starts out thinking about how to frame questions to solve problems and then works within what the laws of physics allow.  He said he believes in only one law in the universe:  physics.  

After the discussion, I asked Musk what area he thought that basic questions had not yet been adequately asked -- and needed to be -- which might lead to yet another arena of innovation for his attentions and investment.  Musk immediately said the quick and inexpensive tracking, decoding and writing of genetic code.  He quickly acknowledged to a Fast Company correspondent who was sitting with us that he did have an investment in a firm working in this arena.

All of this is taking place at The Atlantic Meets The Pacific conference organized by The Atlantic and UC San Diego. Hundreds of folks are huddled together at the Scripps Oceanological Institute. The  meetings can be watched live here.  So far, the discussions have been so above expectations and seriously mind-stretching that I don't know how the day will keep up with what we have thus far.

Next up is Twitter co-founder Evan Williams -- who also created Blogger, which was acquired years ago by Google.  Later this morning, I'll be conducting an interview with energy policy guru Daniel Yergin on themes from his new book, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World.

This is a conference worth turning into and watching live.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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