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TOP 30 OF 2018 - 15. That time Elon Musk mansplained nanoscience to Nanogirl

First published on Thursday the 7th of June, 2018, this piece comes in at number 15 in the top 30 most read Villainesse stories of 2018.

Elon Musk’s Twitter account is getting pretty weird. He’s turned on the media, auto workers, and now is even criticising science (you know, that thing his entire career is built on). Quartz have tracked years of his tweets in an attempt to find some kind of method to Musk’s madness. Spoiler alert: there isn’t one. He’s just replying to Twitter threads, well, whenever he feels like it.

Dr Michelle Dickinson, aka Nanogirl, became involved when Musk (a billionaire who runs three companies) told a PhD candidate that Dickinson’s field of study was bullshit. And then incorrectly explained what nanotechnology was… to a scientist with a PhD in nanotechnology. Yes, you read that correctly.

To try and figure out what’s going on, I spoke to Michelle about the Musk rampage and her response.

Has anyone ever tried to describe your entire field of work as bullshit before?

Yes, but those people mostly subscribe to the flat earth society. I’ve tended to ignore them.

How could anyone think that all research into nanotechnology is bullshit? Was Musk really just trying to stir controversy about an accepted field of science?

Nanotechnology is impossible to see with the naked eye, so I understand that some people struggle to believe in something they can’t see. But a lot of Elon’s companies such as Tesla and SpaceX revolve around nanotechnology, so I’m thinking that he was probably just stirring or disagreeing that it was an official form of science rather than believing what he said.

You don’t seem like you get involved in many Twitter dramas — why did you feel like this was the time to take a stand?

My friend Kate Hannah has a great saying: “Everybody here is smart, differentiate yourself by being kind.” I use that in my Twitter life and try not to say things that I wouldn’t say in real life.

However, when I saw that the comment was made towards a female PhD student, I struggled with the power dynamic of an influential male telling a young female student that the topic of her thesis was bullshit. I’ve mentored hundreds of students in my career and it can be a very stressful time filled with insecurities as they try to figure out who they are and what the value of their research is. I took a stand to defend a female student and to let the world know that Elon’s comments did not come from a place of authority or expertise.

Did you expect Elon Musk to reply?

No, and to be honest, I found his reply to be as silly as his initial comment.

How did you feel when he continued to dismiss nano as ‘BS’?

One thing I’ve learned is that people don’t interact on Twitter as they would do in real life.  Elon used a satirical link to reply, which meant one of two things – he either doesn’t understand the critical thinking, or he was just posting a reply that he knew would set off more fireworks.

Would you describe this incident as mansplaining?

I think it was Elonsplaining. Having spent some time at SpaceX, Elon is well known as a person with a dominant, strong character who often thinks outside of the box, and often doesn’t agree with the norm.

How did you deal with the reply? Your responses were incredibly calm and polite.

Back to Kate’s saying – Twitter gives you time to think about your response to others. I sat on it for a few minutes and decided to write a reply based on kindness and the benefit of the doubt rather than with a kneejerk response.

How did other people, on Twitter or in your life, react?

The Elon fans defended Elon’s comment, which I fully expected, and the scientists defended the science side, which I also expected.  People outside of Twitter were the most fascinating, as they thought it was huge news. To me, it was just another discussion on Twitter with a person who had a different opinion to me. I’m not a big fan of elevating people just because they are famous. Day-to-day, they’re just another person chatting on a digital platform.

Was the Elon Musk incident unusual? You have a PhD, so surely people trying to explain your work to you is a rare occurrence?

It’s not as rare as you might think. Stereotypes around science and engineering have meant that throughout my career, people often assume that I don’t know as much as I actually do.  There have been many times that others have tried to explain my field to me, and that’s OK, I’ve sort of become used to it.  At the end of the day, anybody can try to explain anything they like. The difference is only made by the people who stop talking, and get off their butts and do stuff.

What would you say to young women interested in nanotechnology? 

Do it – it’s fascinating, rewarding, and it has the potential to change so many industries through new discoveries that can help our planet and the people on it.


  • Science /
  • Nanotechnology /
  • Elon Musk /
  • Mansplaining /
  • Sexism /
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