Nathan Myhrvold shares his thoughts on energy, gastronomy and which extinct creatures have him scratching his head.
Photo courtesy of Nathan Myhrvold
"Modernist Cuisine" is available in bookstores and online now.
If you don’t know who Nathan Myhrvold is, you should.
To call Myhrvold, 52, an overachiever would be an understatement. He graduated from high school at the age of 14 and received a Ph.D. from Princeton University in theoretical physics and mathematics when he was 23. He pioneered as the top scientist and strategist at Microsoft for 14 years, working directly for Bill Gates, and was also named the company’s first chief technology officer.
Are you getting more curious?
Since leaving Microsoft in 1999, Myhrvold has not stopped working or learning. He is currently the CEO and co-founder of Intellectual Ventures, a private entrepreneurial firm that brings together inventors and investors. He is simultaneously promoting the ultimate cookbook, ‘Modernist Cuisine,’ a six-volume, 2,400-page book on the scientific principles, techniques and technology to cooking. In his free time (as if you believe he actually has any) you can probably find this T. rex lover at a dinosaur lab or, if he’s on one of his visits to the Windy City, at Hot Doug’s waiting for his gourmet dog.
Medill Reports caught up with him in Bellevue, Wash. for a phone interview to discuss energy, experimenting in the kitchen and his curiosity about prehistoric animals.
Q. You wrote a Harvard Business Review article entitled 'Funding Eureka' in which you argue for something called invention capitalism, and you yourself hold hundreds of patents. Why are you such an advocate for invention?
A. All of our technological society is based on inventions. Everything was an invention at some point in time. Yet, we don’t support inventions very well as a society. There is story after story about inventors struggling to get the financial resources to make the inventions and to get them protected and supported. I thought if I could create a business that would help support invention financially and make that a viable business it would be an incredible contribution to the world. If this works out, it could channel billions of dollars to inventors who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it, and that money would then generate tens of thousands of new inventions, many of which would fail but a few of them could change the world. Over time all of what we hold dear in life or what we hold dear in our society is due to someone’s invention. So if we could turbocharge that process that would be a heck of a thing.
Q. If you could invent something that is currently considered an ‘impossible’ invention, what would you invent?
A. A carbon-free energy source that can scale to meet the needs of the planet, meaning it allows us to produce 10 times more energy than we do today by the end of the century. That’s damn near a miracle and we have to do it!
Q. What do you think is the greatest challenge the scientific community with regard to energy?
A. The challenge that we have with energy is that we have several factors coming together that put us in a real bind. The first is that fossil-fuel based energy gets turned into carbon monoxide and we’ve figured out that that is affecting the climate, so we’ve got to stop that. And so far we’ve made essentially no progress toward that.
Another factor is the world is getting richer. And as the world gets richer, people around the world want more energy. I think that the energy problem that we face is that every citizen of earth is going to want the same kind of per-capita energy use that you find in the developed world. That means that we’re going to increase the total amount of energy generation or utilization on earth by a factor of five to 10.
The third issue is that although there are a lot of interesting, reliable renewable energy technologies but none of them have been up for the challenge. Solar and wind have the problem that they’re not very available. A solar or wind power plant only produces energy a fraction of the time. You can’t count on it. And then there’s nuclear which has both real and perceived problems so we’re kind of in a pickle.
But, I also view this as a tremendous opportunity. We need to create some new ways of generating electricity and I think the world is up for it but we need to roll our sleeves up and invent some new things.
Q. What do you want the public to know about energy consumption?
A. Well this is one of these interesting questions where it’s very hard to give a lifestyle prescription that’s really going to make a difference. Most of the growth in energy use isn’t going to come from Americans. It’s going to come from Chinese, Brazilians, and Indians, and others who are coming from a much lower standard of living than we have. And there are books like ‘50 Things You Can Do to Save the Earth,’ and unfortunately I’m not such a fan of those books because they give people the idea that if we all made a couple of simple changes, it would make a big difference and unfortunately, actually it wouldn’t.
There is a great book by a guy named David McKay called 'Sustainable Energy - without the Hot Air,' and actually the material in that book would be a great thing for the public to understand. [It] does a good job of going through and debunking some of the myths people have about reusable energy.
Q. What are some of the myths?
A. Probably the single biggest thing is really how much energy we use and how essential it is to modern life. People say if everyone would turn their thermostat down it would save a bunch of energy and then they’ll make some quote like a zillion gigawatts or something. And even when they’re correct - and they’re not always correct - what they don’t play out is yes it’s huge but it’s tiny compared to the size of the problem.
The reality is we have a deep problem. We need a technological miracle. Now, I view that as a positive story because the world is actually pretty good at coming up with technological miracles once we set our mind to it. The history of all of life has been the human race facing one set of issues like this after another and pretty much we’ve found them so this is the latest one. It’s probably the biggest technological challenge of our history.
Q. Let’s talk a little about ‘Modernist Cuisine.’ What was the most surprising thing you learned about the science of food?
A. We discovered some amazing things about food safety. We found a number of errors in the FDA food code. We also discovered a bunch of traditional cooking methods that really don’t work in the way people think they work and we found a lot of interesting new ways to cook.
One example is in traditional barbecue cooking in the Southern United States there’s something called ‘barbecue stall.’ If you’re cooking big piece of meat like a brisket or pork shoulder, the temperature will rise and rise and rise and stall for a period of time and then it’ll begin to rise and no one’s been able to figure out why there’s a stall. Well, we figured out what the stall was.
We found you can make fantastic ice cream without any cream or eggs at all. You can brown foods in a pressure cooker. We found a whole lot of really cool stuff.
Q. What inspired this book?
A. When I was 9 years old I cooked Thanksgiving dinner. I went to the library, got cookbooks and cooked it all by myself. It went pretty well, not as well as I can do today, but it went pretty well.
And when I was working at Microsoft in the mid-90s I took a leave of action to go to chef’s school in France, so I’ve been very serious about cooking for a long time. But the book takes the seriousness to a whole new level.
Q. Wow, you cooked Thanksgiving dinner all by yourself? Can you describe a little bit more what you were like as a kid?
A. I read a huge, huge amount and I took things apart and put things together, sometimes I had extra parts left over. My mother says I was 2 years old when I told her I want to be a scientist. Now even if there’s a little exaggeration there I certainly thought I wanted to be a scientist for a really long time.
Q. You were basically a kid when you went to college at the age of 14, do you believe you were born with a gift or do you believe it’s some other factor, like luck?
That’s a great question but I don’t have a great answer. The huge scientific debate is what makes us what we are. You know the scientific consensus is that a huge amount of our basic personality is innate. Now whether that’s genetic or that’s conditions in our mother’s wombs or other early things, people don’t really understand. But a huge amount is also shaped by experience.
I probably am lucky to have some of the innate skills that I have. But I also was lucky to have a family that was supportive, and I was able to be educated. All of that makes a difference.
Q. What do you like to do in your free time?
A. I’m doing a lot I’ve done a lot of work on dinosaurs. I’m trying to figure out why dinosaurs got so big. Dinosaurs got to be the size of blue whales, bigger than any other mammal that lived, and massively larger than any existing mammal, larger by a factor of almost 20 than the mammals that are alive today. So how come dinosaurs are so much bigger than mammals? Potentially there are a lot of different factors and I’m trying to figure it out. I have an idea but I’m still working on it.
Q. OK, I have to ask, if you were a dinosaur, which one would you be?
A. I’ve always liked the predatory dinosaurs more than the plant eaters, so I’d probably be a Tyrannosaurus rex. Ideally, I’d like to be a very smart dinosaur but it doesn’t seem there were very many of them.