Leadership

Neil deGrasse Tyson answers Elon Musk's brainteaser interview question

You might think you're clever but could you answer the brainteaser interview question that Elon Musk has used to screen potential employees? Renowned astrophysicist and StarTalk host Neil deGrasse Tyson can.

According to a 2015 biography by Ashlee Vance, many of SpaceX's early employees were personally interviewed by Musk and likely answered his favorite riddle:

"You're standing on the surface of the Earth. You walk one mile south, one mile west and one mile north. You end up exactly where you started. Where are you?"

To gauge responses to Musk's riddle, CNBC Make It recently took the question to the streets of Manhattan, stumping nearly everyone we asked. We then brought the brainteaser to Tyson.

The astrophysicist, of course, gave us the correct answer: The North Pole. Starting there, if you walk one mile south, one mile west and one mile north, you'll make a triangular path and end up back at the North Pole, your point of origin.

Most SpaceX engineers also give the North Pole version of this answer. However, there are many other ways to approach this brainteaser.

Another answer that Musk reportedly accepts has a person starting near the South Pole and walking a mile to where the earth has a one mile circumference. One can then trace that circle's path and return one mile north to the starting point.

In fact, "there are actually an infinite number of such points," said Rachel Rosen, an assistant professor of theoretical physics at Columbia University.

While Tyson wasn't baffled by Musk's brainteaser in the least, he admitted that those who aren't familiar with the geometry of a non-flat world, also known as non-Euclidean geometry, would likely be perplexed.

"There is a sphere of knowledge for which that question is trivial," explained Tyson. "If you do not have that sphere of knowledge, then it's an intriguing problem … and you should ask it."

Musk, Vance wrote, is less concerned with the actual answer than how potential candidates tackle it. Musk reportedly interviewed a range of employees in SpaceX's early days, including engineers, technicians and janitors.

Wrote Vance, Musk "tends to care less about whether the person gets the answer than about how they approach the problem."

Tyson added jokingly, "Santa clearly knows [the answer] ... Have you interviewed Santa?"

Video by Beatriz Bajuelos Castillo

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