Nathan MYHRVOLD: Problems that are hard are usually hard because of the set of perspectives and tools that have been used to try to solve them. So, you have to always ask: am I bringing something new to this problem? And if you’re not, then you should say, “Well, maybe I should either try to get a different perspective or a different tool or a different thing, or maybe give it a rest and work on something that I can get a little more progress with.”
Steven LEVITT: So there are people who know a lot about a few narrow topics. And then there are other people who know a little bit about just about everything. And then there’s Nathan Myhrvold, who knows everything about everything.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt.
LEVITT: I first met Nathan maybe a decade ago, and from the very first time I met him, I was just blown away by his intellect and his enthusiasm. And I’ve never asked him a question where he didn’t give me an answer that was just profound and detailed and knowledgeable. And what I love about talking to Nathan is not only that I learn a lot from him, but somehow he makes me feel like everything in the world is interesting.
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Steve LEVITT: Nathan Myhrvold! Physicist, inventor, cookbook author, archeologist, tech mogul, scholar of Penguin poop and dinosaur sex. Let’s just start at the beginning. You graduated from high school when you were 14-years-old. You skipped four grades. Were you a likable kid, or were you the most annoying kid that ever existed?
MYHRVOLD: It’s very difficult for a teenager to have that perspective on themselves, famously. And I was never the weirdest kid in class or the most misfit kid.
LEVITT: So, in the pecking order, you were always at least one from the bottom with someone you could bully?
MYHRVOLD: Well, it’s not so much that I could bully as — I was never good at P.E. because I was three or four years younger than all of the other kids. But I was never the worst. And the same thing was true with being socially awkward. I was more socially awkward, but was I the worst? Oh, no. There were others.
LEVITT: Was it your idea to skip all those grades or was it your mom’s?
MYHRVOLD: Oh, it was my idea. It was just so damn boring otherwise.
LEVITT: And you don’t regret it looking back?
MYHRVOLD: We only get to live our lives once. So, who knows what it would be like if I’d taken a different path? I don’t know, but I certainly don’t regret any of it.
LEVITT: All right. So, then you went to U.C.L.A. and you got an undergraduate degree there and master’s. And then you went to Princeton, where you collected another master’s degree, and then you got your physics Ph.D., which eventually led you to Cambridge, I don’t know, at the age of, say, 23, where you studied a postdoc with Stephen Hawking. What was he like? I’ve always wanted to ask someone that question. I’ve never known anyone who knew him.
MYHRVOLD: Oh, Stephen was great. He had a terrific sense of humor, which made it very, very hard to feel sorry for yourself if you were with Stephen, because here’s this guy who is telling jokes and laughing and enjoying life and yet, he’s under such impossible physical circumstances. And you think, “Oh, my God. How does he get the energy? How does he not just crumple into a ball?”
And I asked him once and he said, well, actually his condition was an advantage. And I said, “Stephen, what do you mean it’s an advantage?” And he said, “Well, they don’t expect me to go to committee meetings. They don’t expect me basically to do anything I don’t want to do. I get to think about my physics.”
I said, “Sure, but thinking about your physics is still harder, isn’t it?” And he said — well, he found that his condition meant that he couldn’t take notes. So, he had to simplify everything to just a couple of core concepts. And he thought that discipline actually helped his science.
LEVITT: So, this was roughly 1980. He wasn’t yet a celebrity. I’ve heard from some physicists much later — who may have just been petty and jealous — that he wasn’t really that great of a physicist. Would you say that’s true or is that completely off base?
MYHRVOLD: I think that’s off base. It’s always hard to say what makes a great, great scientist. You can look at the achievements that they have. And that’s certainly one approach. A different approach is to look at how hard was it to find some cool achievement in the era that they were in?
In the 1930s, for example, quantum mechanics had just been discovered and from then through the 1960s, pretty much any decent physicist could count on finding some effect or some new thing and getting it named after them. It doesn’t mean that physics was easy, but we had a very exciting possibility of a new conceptual framework, both of relativity theory and quantum theory, and now we got to apply it to lots of things. Now, in the period where Stephen was active, there wasn’t that much. The last thing that we could exploit like that, I suppose, was general relativity. Stephen did some amazing work in general relativity.
And anybody who says that Stephen isn’t a great physicist, I would say, “O.K, now tell me your answer about the singularity theorems,” which are very impressive intellectual feats that help us understand that, assuming our understanding of physics is correct, there had to be a singularity in the universe. There has to be something like the Big Bang or end in a black hole. Very, very powerful things.
Now, Stephen then turned to try to make sense of more fundamental physics, how you take quantum mechanics and connect it with general relativity. Of course, so did everybody else. And during this last period of 30, 40 years, there’s been very little progress. The last couple big things were the completion of what today people call the standard model of particle physics. Well, Stephen and others tried very hard to reconcile the standard model and particle physics as we knew it with general relativity and gravity. And clearly, that reconciliation has to occur because both theories exist in the same universe. And we’ve not been able to figure out how to do it.
Recently, the Large Hadron Collider at C.E.R.N. looked for one of the missing pieces of the standard model, the Higgs boson. And, of course, they found the Higgs boson. And that was a wonderful achievement. But everybody involved thought they would find the next clue to fundamental physics and they didn’t.
So if you say, “Well, gee, Stephen didn’t solve that problem,” I would say, “Yes, and neither did anybody else during that period.” We have the same evidence that we’ve had in the past that shows gravity and particle physics must be reconciled. And we don’t have any new clue. And without a new clue, it’s really hard to make progress.
LEVITT: So, you’re saying that the lack of new empirical data is impeding the ability of theory to progress.
MYHRVOLD: At the moment, I would say that’s hugely true. Now, it’s a little funny because there are some episodes in the history of science — Newton figuring out Newtonian gravity and Einstein figuring out general relativity — when that was done with only the barest minimum of any empirical clues. Now, unfortunately, we haven’t had a scientist like that since Einstein. And if you count Newton as the previous one, we may only get them every 500 years.
LEVITT: Yeah. That’s a long time to wait. One thing that seems really different to me about economics and physics is that the set of questions that economists try to answer, it’s huge. There’s thousands and thousands of things that an economist could specialize in. One person might study, I don’t know, racial bias in policing for a decade, or models of job search, or pricing of durable goods. And as a consequence, on any given narrow economic topic, there’s only a handful, two or three or four or maybe one expert, one really knowledgeable economist.
But in physics, I get the impression that there’s a handful of problems — six, seven, 10, I don’t know the number — and everybody works on the same problem, which is a completely different way of organizing a scientific discipline.
MYHRVOLD: Well, I think your characterization is, broadly speaking, correct. Now, there are subfields of physics where that’s not the case. Solid state physics, for example, has a fair number of different sub-fields. I think it’d be unfair to say everyone’s working on the same thing.
When it comes to particle physics and what the fundamental theory of the universe is, we did two things. One is we had lots of people working on the same problem. That’s correct. The second thing is that they also doubled down on particular theoretical approaches. So, string theory was just starting to become popular when I was in graduate school. It had been around in one form or another since the 1960s.
But in ‘83 when I got my Ph.D., string theory became an incredibly hot topic without there being that much actual progress. I think in an economist’s terms, the field overinvested in string theory. And now it’s turned out that we don’t have that much to show for it.
LEVITT: That happens. People make big bets that don’t always pay off. I remember back when I was a postdoc at the Society Fellows at Harvard and I would spend time with physicists — the only time I’ve ever spent any time with physicists.
And I remember thinking how glad I was to be an economist because the physicists were afraid to take a vacation, because if they went away for two weeks, they felt like they were going to fall hopelessly behind and all of the people working on the same problem were going to race ahead of them and they’d never catch up.
It was interesting incentives that were in place because people were working in such a competitive environment with everybody working on the same problem. Is that one of the reasons you steered clear of academic physics?
MYHRVOLD: Well, I never decided, “I’m leaving physics.” Instead, I worked in graduate school with a couple of friends on a software project on some of the first PCs that existed, because it was right around that time. We got excited about it. I kept working on it when I was a postdoc.
And I eventually took a leave of absence from my postdoc with Stephen to go work on this software project. And I thought I’d be back in six months. And after many, many years — I think 15 years, something like that — it was announced I was retiring from Microsoft and I got this email from Stephen saying, “Should we clean out the office?”
LEVITT: That is great.
MYHRVOLD: So, I always intended to go back, but I’ve got to say, it’s not been that intriguing for me to go back because the field has been stuck in the conundrum it’s currently in.
LEVITT: Do you remember the first time that you met Bill Gates and what was that like?
MYHRVOLD: Oh, I definitely remember. I’d come up to Microsoft to talk to them about my company. They thought they needed the technology and I wound up meeting Charles Simonyi and Steve Ballmer and others. And we seemed to have a good discussion.
And they said, “Wait a minute, we’re going to arrange one more meeting for you.” And they brought me in to see Bill. And I had a great meeting with Bill. I suppose if I’d had a bad meeting subsequent history could have been quite different.
LEVITT: So, this was in 1986. Was Microsoft a big deal? I don’t even know if Microsoft was a big deal then. Was it?
MYHRVOLD: Well, they had gone public and Microsoft was a very prominent company because they were doing both applications and languages like Microsoft Basic. And they had released one version of Windows, which was still not very user-friendly because it was its very first version. So, Microsoft was a big deal in the industry, but it wasn’t like the company that it became.
LEVITT: You somehow very quickly became chief technology officer?
MYHRVOLD: Initially, I was director of special projects. It took a few years before I was chief technology officer. I became the chief technology officer at Microsoft never having had a computer science class. Now, I wound up learning computer science very thoroughly. But I never did have a class in it.
LEVITT: So, you made a lot of money, clearly, being there and then you decided to leave. You decided to start Intellectual Ventures. What was your thinking behind jumping off the ship at Microsoft?
MYHRVOLD: Well, I had a great time at Microsoft, but it was a very involving thing. I had one pursuit of mine that took 80 or 90 percent of my waking hours. And I wanted to do some other stuff because I’ve always had lots of interests. And that didn’t stop when I was at Microsoft. But I had very little time to pursue them.
There’s only one institution in life where they give you time off for good behavior, and that’s prison. Most jobs, if you perform very well, you might get raises and bonuses, but you also typically get more responsibility. And the easiest thing is just to keep going and stay in that rut for a much longer period of time. And I thought, “Well, why?” So I left.
LEVITT: And describe Intellectual Ventures. It’s not quite like anything I’ve ever seen before.
MYHRVOLD: So, Intellectual Ventures is dedicated to the idea of inventing new technology. We try to come up with new solutions to various technical problems, some of which are big and broad. As you know, we’ve worked a bunch on what would a technological fix to climate change be? We also work on narrower things, like: how would you make airplane wings more efficient? Or what are new approaches for using A.I. in health? So, it’s quite a set of activities.
LEVITT: So, you created something you called the Salter Sink, which is a way of defanging hurricanes. Could you explain in simple terms what the idea was?
MYHRVOLD: Yeah. So, a hurricane draws all of its energy from hot water on the surface of a tropical ocean. And the problem is the sun beats down on the ocean, makes the water warm, but the warmer the water is, the more buoyant it is. So it really stops turning over. It stops mixing. And that allows it to get warmer and warmer yet.
So, to be a strong hurricane, you need to have the surface water be at least 80 degrees, 82 degrees Fahrenheit, and it can get up well over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. And it’s the heat energy that’s stored in that top layer of the ocean that ultimately drives the winds and powers a hurricane. So, in conjunction with a guy named Stephen Salter from the U.K., we had this idea of: why don’t you come up with a way of mixing the water?
Because, even though there’s that layer at the top, if you go down 50 feet, 100 feet, the water is much colder. So, you say, “Well, how do you mix the water?” Well, nature’s way of mixing the water is a hurricane. The idea behind a Salter Sink is you have a pump, if you will, which is made from a giant plastic bag. So, imagine a trash bag that you could put in a sports stadium in. And if you put floats up at the top, and you put weights down at the bottom, you can show with some pretty simple math that waves will crest over the top. That builds up the water level inside, which pushes water out the bottom. It acts like a pump.
Well, it turns out it doesn’t take very many of these plastic bags to take the water temperature in an area and drop it below the temperature where a hurricane is dangerous. So, we thought, great, we have a way of stopping hurricanes or defanging them, as you said. You might stop them altogether if you made a couple paths of cold water out in the ocean. Because as a hurricane comes in, if it hits cold water, it tends to bounce off. And we did a variety of work, both computationally and empirically, to show that it works, and then we tried to see if anyone wanted it.
LEVITT: And nobody wanted it?
MYHRVOLD: Well, effectively, no. Every now and then, after a big hurricane, the next day they’d say, “Oh, the prime minister of this or that island is calling.” But the problem is that this is the type of thing where the world has not taken a proactive stance against it. There are flooding issues where we do that: we build culverts or diversion of things or levees so that we can take flooding away.
But there’s no historical tradition for doing this in the ocean. And it wasn’t clear who was going to fund it. And it’s expensive, of course, to both do the research and to do it. But not at all compared to the impact of even a single hurricane.
LEVITT: Yeah, what would it cost, do you think, to actually implement this? A billion dollars or something like that?
MYHRVOLD: Oh, our estimate is much less than that. These things are literally giant plastic bags. You would make them out of a geotextile cloth, which is effectively a super strong trash bag. And you could make them out of largely recycled materials quite cheaply. And then you deploy them months before the storm. There’s Hurricane Alley — you know that the hurricanes come that way. And so you could easily build something that would defend the Gulf Coast of the United States or defend various Caribbean islands.
LEVITT: It’s so crazy because, look, you might be wrong. It might not work. But what’s the annual damage in the U.S. expected from hurricanes?
MYHRVOLD: Tens of billions.
LEVITT: Tens of billions. So, you’d get your return back.
MYHRVOLD: And a single bad one, the damage is hundreds of billions.
LEVITT: It’s just a market failure.
MYHRVOLD: Now there’s another funny thing. It turns out the stadium-size garbage bags are no different sized than a lot of fish farms the world already has. In fact, whenever I’m flying in an area that has the fish farms, I always look out and I’m like, “Those could be saving us from hurricanes.”
It turns out that the surface of the ocean gets really hot and doesn’t mix, also depletes itself of oxygen. And because it depletes itself of oxygen, fish can’t live in it. So, it creates large dead zones where you can’t have fish. And this first became appreciated when people noticed that the fishing was excellent near offshore oil platforms. Where you say, “Why should that be?”
Well, the answer is that the offshore oil platform, when waves hit it, that does cause some mixing and colder, oxygen-rich water comes up to the surface. So, we think this would also be a very pro-environmental thing. We just need somebody who says, “Yeah, I really want to go do it.”
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with polymathic inventor and former Microsoft C.T.O. Nathan Myhrvold. They’ll return after this short break.
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LEVITT: You obviously get a lot of joy out of the inventing. Do you get an equivalent degree of frustration when you create something amazing and nobody will put it into place?
MYHRVOLD: So, there’s two big frustrations of being an inventor. The first is when you can’t solve the problem. And of course, most of your ideas do fail. It takes a lot of iteration before you hit on something that really succeeds. And then, this is the second one, that you can’t get the world to adopt it.
But it also is the game. We have a unit of our company called Global Good where we work on solving problems in the developing world, the problems of poverty. And there, it’s frustrating because you’re trying to solve things in an environment that’s mostly broken — which is, of course, why there’s a problem in the first place — and that you can’t fix directly the reason why it’s broken.
So, what you’re trying to do is to say, “Well, even in a circumstance where there’s a poor healthcare system and rule of law may not be that great, there’s all these other issues. What can we do?” There, the positive thing is even when you make small improvements, it saves lots of lives. That feels good.
LEVITT: Do you want to talk about TerraPower? Of all the ideas I’ve ever heard my entire life, this is the one I’ve found most captivating. The description of it blows my mind every time I hear about it.
MYHRVOLD: O.K., well, the world needs clean energy. To first-order approximation, our standard of living is driven by the availability of energy. We both need to convert from the carbon-based energy to a non-carbon-based energy. We need to have that solution also extend to some of the poorest places on Earth.
So, we looked at all of the different ways of doing this and worked on several of them. But the thing that is the most practical approach for a carbon-free, easily scalable form of energy is nuclear fission. Fission is, of course, what powers our conventional nuclear reactors that are out there today. Now, you might think, “O.K., but we’ve got reactors and we know how to build them, so what’s new?”
So, a normal nuclear reactor burns — and it’s funny, the nuclear engineers use the term “burn,” even though it’s got nothing to do with the way a log burns. That’s what we all say, “it burns,” — it burns a fuel called U-235. Now, U-235 is a naturally occurring material. But uranium-235 is slightly radioactive. And that means it has a half-life, which means it decays. Roughly half of it goes away every 500 million years.
So, we’ve been through many of these half-life things. If we’d been in the business four billion years ago, it would have been terrific. So now when you dig uranium up out of the ground, only a tiny fraction of it — less than 0.6 of a percent — is actually this U-235. So, then you have to go and enrich it.
And the problem with enriching it is, first of all, it’s really expensive. And second of all, the enrichment stage takes you about halfway towards making a bomb. And here’s the problem: if you want to displace coal plants entirely with nuclear, you don’t have enough U-235.
So, what we decided the world needed was to say, “Why don’t we invent a brand new kind of reactor, use the fact that our computers are vastly better now than they were 30 years ago when people were designing reactors, and let’s make something that is proliferation-resistant so you can’t use it to divert material and make bombs. Let’s use something that burns all of the uranium, not just the U-235. In fact, let’s make something that will burn the waste from current reactors as fuel.” And by God, we came up with that.
LEVITT: O.K., so let me stop you for a second. So you started by saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do all these things?” And then you set out to do it? Or did you know you could do it before you started?
MYHRVOLD: Oh, it’s always some mixture. If you set yourself up with too many counterfactuals, you might not succeed. If you set yourself up with too few, you’ll succeed but it won’t be very interesting. So, what we set out to do is to make a super simple and low-cost, effective economics, breeder reactor that’s what we call a passive breeder, meaning the designs people made in the 50s and 60s. The breeder reactor was extremely complicated — you’d have to continually be taking this highly radioactive fuel out and then separating it, and when you separate it, you’ve got the possibility of diverting some of it to make bombs.
So, we didn’t want that to be a feature of our reactor. So, our analogy is a candle or perhaps wet firewood. When you light a candle, where does the fuel for the candle come from? Well, the fuel is the wax, of course. But initially the wax is solid. You can’t just light the wax. What happens to the candles is when you light the wick, that has just got a tiny bit of the solid wax in it and you can light it. But then the heat from that candle flame melts a little puddle of the paraffin wax, which then gets sucked up the whip. And it burns.
So, the candle makes its own fuel. You don’t have to go through some complicated thing, you just light the candle. And that analogy, believe it or not, carries over to fast breeder reactors. You could build a fast breeder reactor that has this U-238 as its fuel, stuff that we would classify today as nuclear waste. And just like the candle, it prepares its own fuel as it runs.
LEVITT: You encase this fuel, you put it underground, and it burns like a candle for a bunch of years?
MYHRVOLD: Our main approach, the preferred approach, you put the fuel in, and you don’t take anything out for 60 years. Now, that’s very different than a conventional reactor. A conventional reactor you have to refuel every 18 months. And then when you take the stuff out, a lot of it is much less radioactive than conventional waste is today because it’s already lasted for 60 years and its half-lives have run down. And so a lot of the nastiest stuff is gone.
And then you have the possibility, if you wanted to, you could actually redo some parts of it and burn it for another 60 years. Now, here’s the interesting thing. In Paducah, Kentucky, there is a U.S. government facility that stores nuclear waste. In particular, it stores this U-238 waste. Well, there is enough waste in containers in Paducah that U.S. taxpayers are paying people to guard, that you could take Earth to zero carbon and run it for hundreds of years just with the waste that’s currently there.
LEVITT: Crazy. And I’m guessing you’re going to say it’s been really hard to sell this to people.
MYHRVOLD: Yes and no and yes. It turns out that the United States has been afraid of building nuclear reactors for a long time. We operate our existing reactors. The safety record is excellent. But there’s been a public unease. And I think that that is not based on rational facts. We actually did manage to sell China on building one of these reactors. Then the U.S. government, in its infinite wisdom, decided that we couldn’t.
LEVITT: What do you mean you couldn’t?
MYHRVOLD: Well, nuclear technology is a government-controlled thing. That’s to be expected. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. So, for a U.S. company to cooperate with a company in a different country to build a reactor, even if we’re doing all the design, you need a license from the government. And the government revoked our license, presumably as part of some anti-China notion of, “Oh, let’s not give them our great technology and so on and so forth,” I guess.
I mean, the fact is we’re facing a problem of climate change and we all share the same damn atmosphere. It turns out we’re building very few plants here in the U.S. They’re building lots of plants in China. And it’s also true that no first-of-a-kind nuclear plant has ever been built without a lot of government money. Governments around the world have recognized, “Hey, this is a strategic technology, so we will help fund it.” But we do not yet have a plan to build our reactors in the U.S. that really replace what we’d had to walk away from. And that’s frustrating.
LEVITT: Yeah, I bet. Did you ever imagine, when you came up with inventions, the implementation would turn out to be so difficult?
MYHRVOLD: Well, we did understand that nuclear is a government-regulated thing and there’s a public perception that they’re dangerous. So, of course, in that area, we knew that that was true. But we also thought, “Hey, it’s a big world. There’s lots of countries. Somebody is going to be rational,” and in fact, the Chinese were rational about it. But then politics got in the way in a different fashion.
You’re a fool if you don’t realize it’s more difficult than, say, making a new feature for a social networking app that has everybody making Tik-Tok videos or something. But on the other hand, if all of our best minds just try to outdo TikTok, how the hell are we going to get power?
LEVITT: Yeah. Is your breeder reactor — can it melt down the same way that the current ones do? Does it actually have a real risk of killing people, or not so much?
MYHRVOLD: The reactor at Fukushima is an older design called a boiling water reactor. And a boiling water reactor should not have its electrical power interrupted for more than a few minutes. Well, our reactor is designed so it is all air cooled. So, in fact, it can’t melt down that way. And you could shut it off or have it shut down by itself, and walk away, and it would be fine. You don’t have to do anything.
Rather than relying on pumps, we rely on natural air convection. So, as long as there’s an atmosphere and there’s gravity, it’s going to work. Now, if we don’t have an atmosphere and we don’t have gravity, we have much bigger problems.
LEVITT: You’re basically saying, Nathan, that this is the solution, more or less, to the world’s problems. Is that your belief?
MYHRVOLD: Well, it is the solution to a baseload energy-generation problem. We don’t have any current economic way to store renewables that beats having a power plant like this. So, I think it’s a terrific solution to the problem.
LEVITT: This reminds me of something that happened about a decade ago that I’ll never forget about you, Nathan. We had just written SuperFreakonomics, Stephen Dubner and I, our second book, and we had worked with a bunch of environmentalists on global warming. And we had this chapter where we talked about global warming. And I think it was a thoughtful and honest chapter.
And we predicted correctly that the Copenhagen climate meetings were going to be a pretty much complete failure and that this moral suasion approach to fighting greenhouse gas emissions wasn’t going to work. And ultimately, we argued that we’d need technological solutions to solve the problem.
And we never imagined, Dubner and I, that this would just launch a firestorm of controversy, that he and I would become public enemies number one and two of the environmental movement. And what was so interesting is that all of the other scientists in the face of this mob faded into the background. And you alone came forward, Nathan, and you spent a lot of time and effort and reputation defending us and defending what was in there. And that meant a lot to me. I really appreciated you doing that.
MYHRVOLD: Well, look, you deserved to be helped in that situation. If we abandon rationality in the face of gigantic problems, what the hell are we going to do? Just panic? You have to be rational about it. And unfortunately, when problems become politicized, the political aspect will add a non-rational aspect to it.
The problem that people had is if you talk about a technological solution, they feel that that takes away from their fire and brimstone, is the way I like to describe it. Then it seems like, “Oh, you’re just a fan of the status quo,” which we’re not. We’re just genuinely concerned about the earth overheating.
LEVITT: I would argue one of the reasons we’re making such slow progress is that the market is just not well-suited to solving this problem because individual entrepreneurial scientists go off on their own, start their own companies, guard their intellectual property, because they’re trying to make a profit.
But it really strikes me that we’re at this moment in time where we should think hard about somehow incentivizing 100 or 500 of the world’s best scientists to just put down everything else they’re doing and make this their mission. What do you think of that idea?
MYHRVOLD: Betting on the intellectual output of a bunch of really smart, motivated people that are in a context where you’re not constraining their creativity, that’s a bet that almost always pays off. It doesn’t always pay off for the company that does it, if the company sets things up wrong.
That’s the famous case of Xerox which invented a lot of the techniques in modern personal computers and didn’t make that much money in it. They weren’t a computer company. So, doing computing research didn’t help them that much.
I’ve been on the board of trustees at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, which is this amazing place for basically very pure academic research in a number of fields. And they hoped it would improve the world, even though it was not an applied place. It was very much a pure academic place.
And they set this up in 1939 and by 1945, John von Neumann, one of the people they’d hired, literally invents the computer, and builds, at the Institute for Advanced Study, one of the first computers ever. It actually didn’t take any time at all for them to have enormous, enormous impact. It is a shame that we as a society are under-investing in this area. And it would be great if we did something about it.
LEVITT: I couldn’t have a conversation with you without talking about cooking, because you’ve written probably the craziest, in a good way, cookbook of all time. Actually, I have to make a confession: so I picked up your book and it was delivered to my office. And the only time I’ve ever hated you, Nathan, was when I discovered that I would carry your cookbook home.
I mean, I don’t know how much it weighs, 50 pounds, 60 pounds. It’s six volumes. I was, literally, breaking down onto your cookbook, and I thought really hard about abandoning it at the side of the road. Although, I did finally, worn down, make it. But it’s obvious you had so much fun making that cookbook. Am I right about that?
MYHRVOLD: Absolutely. Yeah, cooking is fantastic because it’s got lots of different threads to it. It is, of course, a process involving chemistry and physics. And the actual process of cooking is governed by the laws of nature as everything is. Cooking is also a cultural artifact. The kinds of things we eat, the way we like them fixed, those are important aspects of who we are as a people or as a group.
And we made huge, huge progress as chefs — humankind did — without knowing the actual science of what we were doing. Just empirically tinkering got us a long part of the way there, yet you can actually do a much better job of cooking if you really understand it. So, that has created a niche for me to write cookbooks.
LEVITT: And I know that pizza’s the next thing that you’ve got in your crosshairs. Is that right?
MYHRVOLD: That’s right. The book we’re working on right now is on pizza. It’s arguably the world’s favorite single dish, filled with lots of lore and legend and superstition that just isn’t correct. And it’s a lot of fun.
LEVITT: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about pizza along the way?
MYHRVOLD: Well, let’s see. Pizza is baked with light. It turns out that the air temperature in your pizza oven basically doesn’t matter. All of the cooking of the pizza is done by infrared radiation bouncing off the ceiling, the walls, and the floor of the oven. And that’s true primarily because you are cooking at a very high temperature.
In fact, in most wood burning pizza ovens, it’s very funny — the wood is put towards the back of the oven. And the way fresh air gets into the fire, which, of course, it must do in order to feed the fire, is to run right over the pizza. So, the pizza actually has a stream of room temperature air going over it. But in fact, it’s the infrared light from the ceiling that does all of the cooking.
And we came up with a clever way to do that. We have a little device that makes a shadow over the pizza and still lets the air circulate. And, of course, the pizza is raw where the shadow is.
LEVITT: I can’t wait for the book. But I’m going to have it delivered to my home this time rather than my office, so I don’t have to carry it all the way.
MYHRVOLD: Yeah, well, this book won’t be quite as big. It’ll be three volumes. Yeah, only probably 1,500 pages.
LEVITT: I always love to finish up talking to my guests by having them give listeners some advice. So, you were obviously a highly talented child. And I know your two boys that you raised were also really talented. Do you have advice for parents who happen to find themselves with exceptionally talented kids?
MYHRVOLD: Well, I think that the reason to allow kids to be academically gifted — and I say allow because if the kid has it in them, they’ll want to do it. You don’t have to push them or force them. If the child is interested in learning and you stifle all of that and you make school a drag, you have a much higher probability of a bad outcome.
But here’s the thing that’s odd about it. If you have a child who is a gifted runner, then the idea of having them try out for track or whatever else the sport is and then maybe having your child go to extracurricular coaching and whatever, that’s very common in society. If you have a child that’s a music prodigy and is able to play the piano or the violin exceptionally well, again, the world is generally very supportive of saying, “Hey, that child should get all of the help they should and advancement.”
But when instead of being sports or music, it’s mathematics or science or core academic topics, that’s where, strangely, parents and many school administrators and even some teachers are like, “Oh, God, we don’t want to make them weird.” And look, I got news: they’re weird already. And of all of the ways to be weird, having a kid that’s gifted in math is not so bad.
The notion of saying, “Oh, well, it’s wrong to put them ahead in school. It’s wrong to give them extra coaching or support.” It’s exactly what you would do to the sports kid or the music kid. So, if you have a child that is talented in academic pursuits, don’t starve their little minds, that’s just a tremendous way of wasting talent.
LEVITT: Yeah, very sensible. Makes a lot of sense. Do you have any advice on knowing when to quit something?
MYHRVOLD: That is one of the hardest things ever. Because, of course, we’re all familiar with the story of perseverance winning out. I tend to not advocate that, actually. There’s no point in beating your head against a wall, in my view. After you’ve given the wall a few good cracks, move over and try to find a softer spot on the wall, for God’s sake.
And it is great when someone works long, long, long, long hours on a thing and eventually perseveres. So, I don’t mean you should always be a quitter. That’s why I say it’s hard to know where that tradeoff is. But problems that are hard are usually hard because of the set of perspectives and tools that have been used to try to solve them.
We talked about fundamental physics earlier and trying to go beyond the standard model. So far, we haven’t had a lot of luck in going beyond the standard model. I think we should keep trying, but you also have to recognize maybe this is something where we need an insight from some other part of physics or we need an Einstein that can come up with a new theory without any clues.
LEVITT: All right, last question. So what advice would you give on leading a good life, a life worth living?
MYHRVOLD: Well, there’s times that I’m happy with what I’ve done and times I’m not. I think it comes down to the following things. Are you applying yourself as hard and as well as you could? So, am I working towards things that are really going to be a platform that helps better the rest of society? And it’s so corny, but being true to yourself is part of it.
I am interested in lots of things. And I know that that’s actually a bad strategy. The world is much better at rewarding specialization than they are at generalization. I would be further along if I had one career rather than five. And there would be things that would be much easier.
Only I just am interested in everything. And at some point, trying to deny who you really are just isn’t a smart strategy. I am hugely in favor of logic for almost everything, but the fact that I’m passionate about lots of topics, that just is. And talking myself out of it by saying, “Oh, I could have been someone. I’d be further along in life if only I had focused.” No, that’s silly.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network and is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. Matt Hickey is the producer, and our sound designer is David Herman. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, and Corinne Wallace; our intern is Emma Tyrrell. We had help on this episode from James Foster. All of the music you heard on this show was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.