Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Nathan Myhrvold, myth buster

He was the physicist who went to Microsoft and made his fortune. These days he’s a tycoon, philanthropist, dino-hunter and bestselling author

Alex Renton | January/February 2015

Head east from downtown Seattle, into the suburban technopolis that has grown up around Microsoft’s headquarters, and you will find the warehouses and towers of a company called Intellectual Ventures. A featureless block turns out to be the cave of a geek Aladdin. In the corridors are a second-world-war German cipher machine (part of the Enigma apparatus), a Japanese anti-aircraft gun and a whole host of shabby Bakelite and wooden machines that are the ancestors of the computer on your desk. The staff kitchen has a hybridised coffee machine, which remembers all the espressos it has ever made and can replicate them. At reception, a full-size T. rex roars out of the wall: it appeared in the film of “Jurassic Park”. In the boss’s corner office, when you’ve taken in the view of the snow-peaked Cascade mountains, you can gaze upon dinosaur toenails and an entire fossilised prehistoric crocodile. You may also spot a model of a Gulfstream V jet.

The coffee table, part of a nuclear-reactor core, stands beside a hip-high cone tipped with dull metal and a shabby column of plastic and old circuit boards. This is the nose cone and command centre of a Titan I intercontinental ballistic missile, the tactical nuclear device that saw the United States through the early cold war: technology that worked because it was never used. The hoard is more than a monument to its owner’s bubbling curiosity. It is also a statement from a self-styled “technological optimist”, a man who, at 55, has an unshaken belief that human ingenuity will sort everything out.

Every year a list of the world’s 100 greatest thinkers appears in Foreign Policy magazine, and most years Nathan Myhrvold is on it. An inventor, scientist, patent tycoon and Bill Gates’s “second brain” in Microsoft’s tiger years, Myhrvold is not well known outside geekdom and the arcane world of intellectual property. But he may be more useful than most great thinkers. When did Stephen Hawking or Pope Francis actually do something that might improve your daily life? Myhrvold, who had a post-doctoral fellowship under Hawking, achieves that quite frequently. I meet him in Vancouver, where he is giving the keynote speech to a conference of intellectual-property traders and lawyers. Few people combine pleasure and business with the gusto of Myhrvold, who has been touring Vancouver’s best restaurants. At one it was decided that a bottle of Bordeaux wasn’t quite right. “We were sending it back, and I said ‘No, wait a minute—let’s put salt into it.’ Which was actually excellent. Then we took it into the kitchen and blended it. That really freaked the sommelier out.” Myhrvold cackles his contagious laugh, a pitch higher than you’d expect from his solid frame.

Adding salt to wine, a tiny pinch to a glass, is a new idea, not yet fully tested. But blending wine—or, in Myhrvold’s phrase, hyper-decanting—has already rattled the wine world (“It has made the experts frothing mad,” he giggles). With the chefs and scientists who work with him on his “Modernist Cuisine” books he set out to try all the mechanical methods of making sure wine is at its best when it is time to drink it, from an old-fashioned decanter to aerators that draw oxygen into the stream as it is poured.

Using his loaf: Myhrvold started cooking at the age of nine. He is now the bestselling author of “Modernist Cuisine”  

The most effective was simple and cheap: frappé it in a blender at top speed and drink it within an hour or so. Myhrvold has risked a bottle of 1982 Château Margaux, worth several thousand pounds, on this: it is one of his most famous feats. As we walk along a Vancouver street, a passer-by stops us to tell Myhrvold of his hyperdecanting experiences at pompous parties. For the man, it’s a happy way to challenge received wisdom and discomfort smug experts. For Myhrvold, too, these are favourite pastimes.

He and the team are convinced that hyperdecanting “invariably improves red wines”, but, of course, they cannot prove it. Matters of taste are frustrating, that way. There is little absolute evidence of success in food and drink—how do you measure the best?—which may explain why scientists do not often stray into the kitchen. Myhrvold’s team recruited wine experts to do triangle tests (with three glasses of the same wine, two blended, one not) to establish the value of hyperdecanting. But they turned out to be less consistent even than ordinary people: in triangle tests, the Masters of Wine could not give the same verdict on two glasses treated identically.

This failure gives Myhrvold great joy. “Wine experts! They cannot tell white from red, if you blindfold them. There’s a famous experiment, where they tinted a white wine with food colouring, and they end up writing them up like a red wine.” (I looked up this cruel exercise and found that it was done by Frédéric Brochet of the oenology department of the University of Bordeaux in 2001. He fooled 54 critics into thinking two glasses of the same white wine were different, simply by adding food colouring to one of them. The red was praised for being “jammy” and having a savour of “crushed red fruit”.) “The thing is that taste in wine is quite context-dependent. There was another great experiment where they took a bunch of wines and took the wine critics’ descriptions of each and asked them—‘Can you match them?’ Could they? No!” He bubbles with laughter, a mischievous, beguiling imp.

He loves to confound experts, whether they are palaeontologists, nuclear physicists, epidemiologists or wine buffs. His stock in trade is using rigorous analysis to dismember a sacred cow. “We do it like that because that’s how it’s done” is a red rag to him, whether uttered by the dinosaurs of old tech when Microsoft was rising to challenge them in the 1980s, by the energy firms that resist the possibility of safe, cheap nuclear power, by development economists who can’t analyse statistics or by a chef trying to justify a hallowed (but scientifically empty) cooking gambit. For Myhrvold, myth-busting has been a life’s work, the means to a fortune and a bundle of fun.

Fifteen years ago, a month short of his 40th birthday, Myhrvold quit his job at Microsoft. During his time as head of research and chief technology officer it had become the world’s most successful company. In 1999 his fortune included $275m in Microsoft stock, built up over 13 years at Bill Gates’s side. He had been Gates’s chief strategist for much of that time, rising to run a $2 billion research-and-development budget—the largest in corporate history. Gates, still a close friend and business partner, has said: “I know no one smarter than Nathan.”

Gates, still a close friend and business partner, has said: “I know no one smarter than Nathan.”

As many of us would if we were faced with more-than-comfy early retirement, Myhrvold decided to pursue his hobbies—photography, cooking, travelling, fly-fishing and dinosaur-hunting—and spend more time with his family. He and his wife Rosemarie bought a boat, took their ten-year-old twin boys out of school and set off on a two-year educational grand tour. They began in the Mediterranean, guided by Homer, Plutarch and Thucydides. “Troy, Scylla and Charybdis, the Cave of the Cyclops. Then we went to Africa. Everyone says, ‘spend time with your kids!’ I really did.”

The twins are now 25 and both are scientists. Conor Myhrvold, who works in data analysis for the worldwide taxi-sharing company Uber, told me he had enjoyed the wandering, home-schooling years very much. I wondered what it was like having Nathan for a father. “Pretty cool.” What did the brothers get from their mother? “One obvious thing is language—she’s a romance-languages specialist, so she taught us those. And she’s kind of, more, how do you interact with people, social awareness, things like that...”

Even before his semi-retirement, Myhrvold had started a new business, though it also looked like another way to pursue those hobbies. Intellectual Ventures (IV) is primarily an inventing house, operating on a huge scale. In its 10 year life, it has filed more than 3,000 patents for its own inventors’ work, and acquired 70,000 more, putting it ahead of the likes of Google, Toyota and Boeing. “What venture capital did for startups,” Myhrvold says, “we want to do for inventions.” He adds, with his customary éclat, that innovation is being starved by two things—declining government spending on research and corporations driven by impatient, short-termist shareholders.

The initial investors, who put up $6 billion, included Microsoft, Sony, Intel and Google. Myhrvold’s plan was to acquire others’ inventions, bundle the patents into useful packages and sell them to producers. Underlying this novel idea was the notion of creating a capital market in patents, both to reward inventors properly and provide new ideas to fill the R&D vacuum left by traditional industry. “The resulting virtuous cycle”, he has said, “will surely transform the world.”

IV’s acquisition of other people’s patents has been controversial. Critics see the company not as a fairy godfather to invention, but a “patent troll”, using the courts to extort money from technology companies, and so stifling innovation. Myhrvold and Microsoft are rank hypocrites, one inventor who has sold patents to them told me. (He declined to be named.) His point was that Microsoft in its tiger years complained about the dead hand of intellectual-property law, and the costly enforcement process, but now it acquires and exploits patents to protect its monopolies.

Mates with Gates: Myhrvold (right) with Bill Gates, once his boss, now his friend, neighbour and partner in philanthropy

Myhrvold rejects the charges, most forcefully in a thundering 2010 essay for Harvard Business Review. But his boast then, that IV had never gone to court over a patent infringement, no longer holds. Several high-profile cases have been fought recently. He says those are a simple matter of defending rightful ownership of ideas and with it the ability of inventors to make a living. “Show me the easy-going side of intellectual-property law enforcement!” he says, with rare acid.

“I can’t see why he’s seen as Dr Evil, wanting to take over the world,” one of Myhrvold’s scientists tells me. But it is true that many in Silicon Valley revile him. Myhrvold, tired of the vitriol, is damning of what he sees as the greed-driven libertarianism of America’s budding hi-technocrats, typified by their single-minded pursuit of “tools or toys for rich people”. They feel threatened by IV, he says. “Silicon Valley is a very aspirational place. Everyone’s aspiring for their Nirvana or heaven, which is to become super-fucking-rich and powerful very young. ‘Oh my God, I’ve got this god-given right to go out and take any idea I want and become a billionaire at age 30.’ Very few get that, but that doesn’t stop them idealising it. It’s kind of a secular religion, and what we do, rewarding people who originate ideas, is apostasy to them because it’s not their algorithm.” Intellectual property is in its Old West period, with the techies warring as the ranchers who wanted to drive their cattle across the open range once did with those who were putting up fences and making farms.

Myhrvold is sure the farmers will win, but IV has not run entirely smoothly. An attempt in early 2014 to launch a new patent-acquiring fund found some of the original investors, including Google, unwilling to punt more money. Last summer about a fifth of the 700 staff were laid off—mainly lawyers, no inventors. Myhrvold doesn’t seem knocked back by these events, but he won’t comment on the ongoing fund-raising attempt, citing Securities and Exchange Commission rules. Whether the investors return will tell us whether Myhrvold’s eternal optimism is still infectious.

There is one stereotype of the Great American Tech Businessman that can’t be applied to Myhrvold. He is no college drop-out. By the time he joined Microsoft in 1986, he had five degrees and doctorates, including a bachelor’s in maths and master’s degrees in geophysics, space physics and economics. He completed his PhDs in theoretical and mathematical physics at Princeton, beginning at the age of 19, and there he also met his wife, Rosemarie Havranek, who was studying romance languages, as their son said. He was doing post-doctoral studies in cosmology and quantum-field theory under Stephen Hawking at Cambridge at the age of 24. “I’ve had three bosses: Stephen Hawking, Steve Ballmer [a future CEO of Microsoft] and Bill Gates. The clear pattern is decreasing level of formal education, increasing level of net worth. Now I’m stuck!”

He does fit an older cliché of tycoonery: he started with very little. His father, who died in 2013, left his mother soon after Nathan’s brother Cameron was born. She brought them up alone and poor, and they took her surname. Natalie Myhrvold was a swimsuit model, for the famous Jantzen firm, and then an elementary-school teacher. She managed to get her sons into a series of private schools in Los Angeles by taking jobs there herself. Nathan ended up with a scholarship at the Mirman School, a famous hothouse for “gifted children”, though as he points out, when he last looked at its Famous Alumni, “there was Crispin Glover, who plays the Dad in the ‘Back to the Future’ movies, two other actors and me…So what was the point of the fancy school?”

I ask him what it meant to grow up poor and fatherless. “I’ve only lived my life,” he replies, “I haven’t lived alternative ways.” He ponders this for a moment before plunging into an analogy, likening fatherlessness to being unaware of the blind spot in your eye, then moving on to the problem of not being able to A/B test versions of your own life, and thence to an anecdote about driving with his brother, as a teenager, and passing a “Jesus Saves” billboard in a California town. “It had this wonderful message: ‘One good wife is better than a thousand sexually voracious whores’...My brother says, ‘Nathan, wait, we’re scientists, we’ve got to put this to the test. But we need a control group. Nathan, you get married!’ ”

This slalom sums up Myhrvold’s conversation. He is a master metaphoriser, a great anecdotalist, and a neat dodger of questions. I try again.

“I grew up without a dad. There are people who grow up without a dad for whom this is some giant black hole in their lives. Who knows what I might have been—I might have been somebody!—but I did grow up very fast. I think I was nine when I started doing my mom’s income-tax form. I did all the business side, and it’s also the time when I started cooking. I was really good at school, I was skipping all these grades and I graduated high school and went to college at 14. I didn’t go to a fancy college, but I went to UCLA when I was 17. Malcolm Gladwell, who is a friend of mine, has this whole thing in ‘Outliers’ that maybe you shouldn’t go to a really good college because you might get your ass kicked. Who knows, maybe I’d have become a middling nothing if I’d got my ass kicked early.”

MYHRVOLD NOW publishes academic papers analysing the vomit of dinosaurs and has found more T. rexes than anyone else

About the same time he became interested in natural biology, fossils, dinosaurs and (of course, you might say) taxidermy. It is easy to trace the little boy through to the man who now publishes academic papers analysing the vomit of dinosaurs and has found more T. rexes than anyone else. His mother, though finding it hard to make ends meet, gave her boys the food their mental appetites demanded, ensuring that the 12-year-old Nathan got a ticket to see Louis Leakey, the pioneer of early-human anthropology and discoverer of Olduvai Man, speak in downtown LA.

“I was totally aware of being poor…But I only wanted one thing when I was young, wealth-wise. I wanted to be able to buy any book I wanted. We lived two doors from the library in Santa Monica and I read every book, long before I went to school. Many years transpire and I’m at Microsoft and I’m buying books whenever I want [he has estimated his Amazon book habit at nearly $200,000 a year]. I realise that this is like wishing for eternal life and forgetting to ask for eternal youth, because I had tons of money but absolutely no time to read all the books.” The books now fill two warehouses.

As microsoft grew Keatley, Getty, Taylor Reed in the 1980s, Bill Gates had a policy of “buying smarts”. Myhrvold, and a group of young men including his brother Cameron, had a software startup, which had produced an operating system that was interesting IBM. Microsoft bought the company, dropped the system and kept the brains. Within two years Nathan was working directly for Gates, who used to introduce him as “astrophysicist, programmer, entrepreneur” and, now as then, seems delighted with his acquisition.

I wonder if it was a wrench leaving Cambridge and astrophysics. (The reason was a pressing need to make money for his family.) “It depends how to view it, it’s a road less travelled. When I left Cambridge it was originally a three-month ‘leave of absence’. When I left Microsoft in 1999, Stephen [Hawking] e-mailed and said ‘Shall we clear out your office?’

“My friends in physics chide me about having left it. Five years ago or so I was visiting Stephen, I was there at tea-time in the department, and this guy, a student of his, comes up to me and says, ‘Are you Nathan?’ I said, ‘Yeah’, and he said, ‘I’ve read all of your papers, I’ve read all of your work, and I just have to say, I feel so sorry for you…’ I said, ‘Yeah?!’ He said, ‘You had such potential, you had such great ideas!’ The kid was so sincere, you couldn’t be mad. I remember thinking, well, I’m going to head off to Farnborough now, get into my private jet, go home and try to console myself.”

In the many accounts of Microsoft in the late 1980s and 1990s, Myhrvold tends to be painted as a Puck, a mercurial genius and a clown, but far-sighted, determined to parse the future and find profit in it. Early on he was one of the designers of Microsoft’s radical sales model—if they sold software, to the industry’s incredulity, they wanted to be paid per use. “The world is hugely better off,” he has said about this, because it rewarded innovation properly.

A strategy devised by Myhrvold the salesman was just as significant. He laid it out in a memo to Gates in 1992: “Regular upgrades are important for both revenue and loyalty…A feeling of progress and improvement is necessary to keep users loyal…and an important way to produce revenue. Upgrades are the closest thing we have to an annual fee or subscription.” Within two years, Microsoft’s Windows had 25m licensed, upgrading users, 80% of all PCs ran it and the company’s revenues were approaching $5 billion. Myhrvold became head of research, with that R&D budget of $2 billion.

The trick of selling consumers a software product over and over again, like a washing powder, worked, partly because Microsoft quickly ensured that—apart from Apple—there were no feasible alternatives for the ordinary PC user. Myhrvold was also behind the policy of using Microsoft’s enormous pile of cash to swallow potential competition and expand into telecoms, entertainment, publishing: all media that would eventually be, as he wrote in a 1994 memo, “part of the food chain of the new digital world”. As Ken Auletta of the New Yorker put it, Microsoft then constructed “a web of communications companies to partner with and gain leverage over…Gates did not just invest; like a female spider after mating, sometimes he devoured his partner.” In five years from 1994, Microsoft bought into, or bought up, 130 companies.

But sales and expansion strategy was far from his main suit. Myhrvold scoured the growing hive of the tech industry for talent. He invented, he futurologised, he foresaw the convergence of TV and computers, and helped push Microsoft into punts on futures like set-top boxes, the information super-highway, and the high bandwidth that would allow television to be streamed to computers. He predicted universal connectivity, the “virtual Walmart” that the “friction-free capitalism” of the internet would enable, and the cloud: he warned in 1994 that the internet would be a platform in itself, overtaking the PC. He has kept the memos to prove it.

Microsoft came late to the internet—even in 1994 Gates was still telling the board that there was no money in low-bandwidth information-sharing—but Myhrvold was one of those who saw the error, and ensured that a browser, Explorer, went free with the Windows 95 package. “So we were late into the internet?” says Myhrvold, who, like Gates, is sensitive to the accusation that Microsoft followed but did not lead. “So, tell me how Netscape is doing today?” he says, with another drop of acid.

It’s a measure of his chutzpah that he will hold your gaze, flash a big grin, blue eyes alight behind his spectacles, and make fabulous claims. “I invented the iPhone…in 1991.” Next day a copy of the memo arrives in which he does seem to have foreseen a multi-functional hand-held device, to be priced between $500 and $1,000. Inventing is not producing, as he would swiftly admit. But Myhrvold clearly had a supply of the “secret sauce” that Gates prized. As Myhrvold likes to say, “perspective is worth 30 IQ points.” He brought both a generalist’s perspective and the acuity of a hard scientist to Microsoft.

MYHRVOLD'S memos were famous at Microsoft. They could be 20 or 30 pages long, and they had snappy titles like “Roadkill on the information superhighway”

His memos were famous at Microsoft. They could be 20 or 30 pages long, and they had snappy titles like “Roadkill on the information superhighway”. (In that one Myhrvold warned Microsoft of its own mortality.) Many Microsoft techies resented his way of doing business. He wrote up to 100 e-mails a day, and they could be an irritant. “Just because someone has a licence to step on your toes, doesn’t mean you’ll be excited by it,” said one Microsoft vice-president, Rick Rashid, a distinguished academic scientist—recruited by Myhrvold himself.

“Talking to Myhrvold was a little like smoking dope,” said one chronicler of the time, when early versions of Windows were being rolled out. “It could give you insights, but in the light of day [they] didn’t make any sense.” Executives would leave his office “reeling, dizzy and looking for food” according to one account—and asking why Gates had put a cosmologist into R&D. “I do not think he usually does a good job of connecting the world of the possible to the world of the actual,” a fellow executive told Auletta, anonymously. The things Myhrvold predicted didn’t always happen.

He admitted at the time he was no different from an insurance salesman, a gambler or a futures trader. But saying he got things wrong is “like calling your life insurance agent to complain that you haven’t died yet, so why did he sell you life insurance?” Twenty years on, it’s hard to put a finger on anything Myhrvold the soothsayer did call wrong. The man who mattered, Bill Gates, never lost faith: he treasured his “gadfly”, and put $2 billion where Myhrvold’s mouth was. This, Gates has said, is the bliss of having a technology company run by technologists, not by accountants.

“I love Nathan’s memos,” Gates told Auletta in the mid-1990s. “He can explain quantum gravity, why we shouldn’t do a new-media effort, why the Hummer is a great car, what algorithm we should use for encryption, how he hired some amazing people, and the crazy food he plans to cook that night.”

“Wealth reveals people,” says Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor who is another of Myhrvold’s friends. Like so many tycoons as they wonder how the world might remember them, the Myhrvold-Gates collaboration has turned largely to philanthropy. They are partners in Global Good, which is housed at Intellectual Ventures and invents things for humanitarian use, and in TerraPower, a company with an idea for building safe, cheap nuclear reactors. They are neighbours, in Seattle’s lakeland suburbs, and they still hang out. Myhrvold was the friend who, when Bill married Melinda French on the island of Lanai in Hawaii in 1994, had an idea for thwarting the paparazzi who were itching to capture the wedding of the world’s richest man. It was simple: rent out all the helicopters in Hawaii for the day.

“The cave of a geek Aladdin”: Myhrvold’s office in Seattle, complete with dinosaur toenails and part of a nuclear-reactor cone acting as a coffee table

If the world beyond hi-tech invention and intellectual-property law knows of Myhrvold, it is largely because of the “crazy food” Gates mentions. When Nathan was nine, his mother turned over the Thanksgiving meal to him. He used books from the library to learn how to cook, and started to question the validity of the lore that was in them.

While some of his interests in the practical application of science have waxed and waned—the Formula 1 car phase, say—cooking has been a constant. While serving as CTO at Microsoft, he took time off to study at the La Varenne cook-school in Paris. He earned the necessary stove-front hours for his diploma by working nights as a stagiaire in a downtown Seattle restaurant, and was a member of the winning team at the annual World Barbecue Championships in Memphis, Tennessee.

There is a lot of science in a barbecue hog-roast—low-temperature slow cooking, the effects of the acids and sugars in marinades—and that is what Myhrvold brought to this hotly contested prize. He made a number of discoveries, the most important of which was that our worries about pork are wrong, to the extent that we “massively overcook” it.

The reason we don’t serve it pink is fear of the roundworm trichinella. But over four recent sample years, only eight cases of trichinellosis attributed to commercial pork occurred in America, where, every year, about 8m tonnes of pig are eaten. That makes the disease, as Myhrvold writes in his self-published five-volume book on science and cooking, “Modernist Cuisine”, one of the rarest known to man. It is easily treated, too—yet for decades the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommended cooking pork at a minimum 160˚F (71˚C). “That’s why Mom had to cremate the pork roast.”

In 2011, partly thanks to Myhrvold’s protestations, the USDA lowered the recommended cooking temperature of whole cuts of pork to 145˚F, something of a triumph. (In fact, there’s no reason to cook pork differently from beef or lamb—130˚F for three minutes will kill salmonella, melt tendons and fat, and make a juicier, tastier steak.)

Taking what Myhrvold calls “the terribly nerdish approach” to an imprecise art like cooking has been fruitful. His discoveries about flaws in the lore of pork are not the stuff of spectacular science—merely putting time-honoured practices up against modern research, and taking advantage of cheap technology, in this case the digital probe thermometer, which lets every cook find out what’s happening inside the meat. There is much more that can be done by letting science into the kitchen, as cooks like Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià have shown. The surprise is that so few scientists have ventured through that door. Myhrvold, at first intrigued by sous-vide temperature-controlled cooking, went in with a gang: at one point he had 36 scientists, cooks, photographers and editors working on the project.

One of those scientists, Larissa Zhou, tells me she likes the work partly because she finds it liberating from the pure physics she studied. The lack of objective truth —“What is the ‘best’ french fry?”—makes cooking science a unique blend of art and science. “It’s an epistemology,” she says. Now she is working on the physics of bread-making.

“Modernist Cuisine” is an extraordinary thing. I bought one of the first copies in Europe and, when it arrived, the perspex box with the five A3-sized volumes left the delivery man groaning. They now act as a side-table. The collection is beautiful: there is now a spin-off volume featuring extraordinary close-up photography (another of Myhrvold’s hobbies), including unprecedented views of the goings-on inside casseroles and ovens, obtained by simply cutting them in half and glueing plate-glass across the gap.

Every fan of the book has a favourite revelation in those 2,438 pages. Mine is the scrambled eggs made sous-vide at just 164˚F, the lowest temperature possible (and what a velvety poem of egginess they are). Another is the green-pea butter, which the cooks in the Intellectual Ventures labs made for me when I visited. They call it the “soul of the pea”, and it is indeed exquisite. Sadly, separating a few spoons of it from a bucket of petits pois requires access to an industrial centrifuge running at 10,000rpm.

This self-publishing venture is one of Myhrvold’s unlikelier successes. It has won many awards, sold 180,000 copies (there’s now a one-volume version, “Modernist Cuisine at Home”, for £85) and by the end of 2013 had earned back some £19m ($30m). The “terribly nerdish approach” sells.

One blue and sunny September morning in Seattle, I join Myhrvold and some of his food team—the head chef, a designer, a scientist, a publisher—for a breakfast meeting. Dominating the table is a vast and beautiful loaf of sourdough, present for both work and pleasure. The chef Francisco Migoya gets up early to bake dozens of loaves every day, because the Modernist Cuisine team is now working on a book about bread (the first edition, vast as it was, missed out bread, pastry and indeed dessert). As we talk, we eat the bread with butter and a deep-flavoured dulce de leche, the caramelised milk paste that modernist cooks make by tampering with the pH and using a pressure cooker. The scientists’ way is not just tastier than the traditional one, it is much quicker.

Cutting the loaf releases a great waft of cheesy tang. Myhrvold, in his ebullient mode, talks about preferable sourness, the different sourdoughs, the different bacteria that make the different acids for the sourness, how you encourage them and how you suppress them. The team is still experimenting to find out exactly what’s going on.

“Modernist Cuisine” is rated, by the restaurant boffin Tim Zagat, “the most important book in the culinary arts since Escoffier”

Why, I wonder, has this not been done before, given the popularity of bread? There are smiles around the table: it’s a familiar question. “As with our previous book,” Myhrvold says, “there’s things where someone in the world does know the answer, but that information has never made it to the people who do the cooking. There’s a lot about sourdough that molecular biologists have figured out relatively recently, but essentially none of that information has made it back to bakers. The second phenomenon is there are some things that nobody has ever looked at, or they’ve looked and come to contradictory conclusions, which is essentially the same thing.” That is the gap into which Modernist Cuisine inserts itself, and the reason why it is rated, by the restaurant boffin Tim Zagat, “the most important book in the culinary arts since Escoffier”.

The meeting gets technical. Larissa Zhou presents the results of a series of experiments that have been examining the use of steam in a bread oven, to give something like a baguette its crisp brown crust. Again, it’s a technique bakers have known for a hundred years, but not fully understood. As the conversation goes into “oven-spring” and the seemingly impossible problem of how to measure the volume of a loaf of bread as it bakes, I watch the eager, clever young faces encircling Myhrvold. He’s a benign boss, T-shirted, swigging Diet Pepsi, making jokes. Zhou has spent a year travelling the world, collecting more than 4,000 bread recipes and sampling 150 different types of baguette alone. They are testing the lore, reworking it, disposing of superstition. All to produce something that tastes better. It looks fun.

Another chef at the lab, Sam Fahey-Burke, who used to work at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, says he was bored of being told (not by Blumenthal) “we do it this way because that’s how we’ve always done it.” For example? “When I was at culinary school, I was told to put a cork in the water when boiling octopus. Why, I asked. ‘No one knows,’ they said.” We all laugh. The appliance of science to his trade has been a liberation.

The scientists at Intellectual Ventures like to say they’ve got the best job of anyone they know. The key to that is the toy box. The labs, which occupy five suburban warehouses and employ over 140 people, are stuffed with amazing wonders, many of which Myhrvold picked up second-hand on eBay or the like. There’s the aforementioned centrifuge, a CT scanner, cameras, high-energy lasers, pressurised water lathes, power presses, robots and 3D printers. As we tour the warehouse, Pablos Holman, “inventor, futurist and hacker”, says: “The invention part is really important. I used to work in Silicon Valley and now it’s kind of sickening. It has lost its way, they’re largely just trying to make more fart apps for the iPad. Not really looking at what are the big problems and how do we use technology to solve them. Not first-world problems, not just that iPhone batteries don’t last long enough. What’s harder is someone else’s problems, real ones about life and health. Silicon Valley may steer back that way, it will take some time, but here we get to do it.”

Though IV has filed thousands of patents, not many of those inventions are in production, which is par for the course: only about 2% of patents filed ever see the light. But how many of them have actually solved problems of life and health? One Myhrvold-watcher—who, as usual, won’t be named—scoffs at his promises, just as rival Microsoft execs used to. “How many times has Nathan promised an interviewer that he’s invented clean nuclear power, or a cheap laser gun that will end malaria? So, where are they?”

Holman shows me a portable cooler that will keep vaccines stable in hot countries for weeks without power. That is in production with a Chinese manufacturer, AUCMA, as is a clever new milk pail that stops the milk spoiling, already in use in eight African countries. Then there’s the mosquito-zapper that has been widely trailed for five years. It is shining a beam across the ceiling of one of the warehouse labs, ready to measure the wing-beats of any passing mosquito, identify it as malaria-carrying, and shoot it. It is close to production, Holman says: it has commercial backers, and could cost less than $200 a unit. On the promised safe, sustainable nuclear power, Myhrvold tells me that a quarter of a billion dollars has been spent on the TerraPower project; Bill Gates, who has backed it from the start, has an outline deal with the Chinese that may lead to the first test reactor being built soon, using spent uranium as fuel. “People like to laugh at it,” Myhrvold says, “but we’re doing something that no traditional energy company has got round to even trying.”

What’s he like as a boss, I ask Pablos Holman? He grins. “I love Nathan. He has a great sense of humour, a great attitude, he’s really, really smart. Even in what you know about. I mean, I know a lot about computers, but I have trouble keeping up with him. I’ve seen him do that to biologists, palaeontologists, to oceanographers…With him, you see what’s possible when somebody doesn’t super-specialise. It’s one of the things that’s really sad about the scientific community, that you make yourself as a scientist by becoming the world’s greatest expert in the smallest possible field. Nathan not only became somebody who could work deeply across different fields of science, but also appreciate the experts. And he can round them up, people who would never consider talking to someone else about problems, and get them to co-operate.”

So what’s bad about him? What would you change?

“I’d probably work on his wardrobe a bit.”

MMyhrvold is in Oslo in mid-October, and we meet for dinner. As we work our way through a very Nordic tasting-menu (wild sheep, cured egg, seaweed), he talks about Ebola. Earlier in the day, the World Health Organisation said new cases in west Africa would reach 10,000 a week by December 2014. In America, a second nurse had been found to have been infected.

Myhrvold says he and many others at Intellectual Ventures have been working “night and day” on Ebola since early September. In mid-September Bill Gates, co-funder of the humanitarian work at the lab, put $50m into the fight against Ebola. As ever, Myhrvold’s involvement is across a number of disciplines, including assessing the viability of a range of possible vaccines and prophylactics. Four years ago, after the SARS and bird-flu viruses, Myhrvold’s and Gates’s Global Good lab came up with a cheap idea for treating virus outbreaks by extracting antibodies from the plasma of victims. No one acted on it.

Responding to a request from high in the American administration, the lab is busy trying to solve the problem of ineffective protection suits—“currently, big plastic bags”—for health workers, and get a cheap, smart one into production. The WHO Ebola guidelines ask nurses to change their suits up to eight times a day, and the one they’ve got patently does not work. Intellectual Ventures hopes to produce one a nurse can wear for three hours without being overcome by dehydration.

Myhrvold has also been digging into the statistics from west Africa, making computer models to give predictions more accurate than the WHO’s crude projections. What he has found is deeply worrying. The virus, he says, is mutating twice as fast as normal. Perhaps even more shockingly, even if Ebola is defeated this time, “there’s still no good strategy for a pandemic. People [in government] just don’t want to put expensive measures in place, for fear that if they don’t work, they might be criticised.” Myhrvold the professional optimist seems as scared as any of us.

Going the extra mile: Myhrvold heads for Svalbard to photograph flour grains 

He and some of the bread team had just flown up to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, on Spitzbergen Island in the Arctic Circle, to photograph flour grains for the introduction to their next book. The vault was set up in an old copper mine, to store essential vegetable DNA and allow a restart after a global disaster. It was an apposite time to visit, with the threat of apocalypse more immediate than usual. But it wasn’t wholly clear how any surviving humans would access the underground chambers, if they pitched up in Spitzbergen in the aftermath of Armageddon.

Myhrvold’s outlook as a generalist—“you mean, dilettante”—is the key to all his activities. What would have happened if he’d been a specialist, if he’d become a proper cosmologist, say? He is ready with a retort. So little progress has been made in particle physics since Higgs proposed his boson, a career in it might have been pretty boring. “All we’ve found out is that something we counted on in the 1960s was true. It would have been far more interesting if CERN had not found it.”

It’s hard to get him to review his life—“write my autobiography? It would have to be a pretty slow week”—but he has this to say about polymathy. “The world tends to reward specialisation, more than generalism. There’s very few opportunities for generalists. Instead, it’s ‘get the best guy for the problem’. So was generalism a disability I’ve overcome? Or has it been an advantage? If someone had put the spurs in, maybe I could have stayed on the straight and narrow. Maybe I could have been somebody!”

His chortle is loud enough for the next-door table to turn and smile at us.

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.