There are a lot of stereotypes about smart people. Most of these stereotypes are well supported with the geeks and freaks that occupy the top of the intellectual spectrum. However, a few of the absolute intellectual elite break the mold. Nathan Myhrvold is one of these. He is as one-of-a-kind as people come, and he is amazing.
Let’s start with some of his geek cred. It’s pretty good. He started college at age 14 (ala Doogie Howser). He graduated from UCLA having studied math and physics with bachelors and masters degrees. Then on to Princeton, where he recieved his PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics by age 23 (now I’m thinking of the “Charlie” character from the TV show Numbers). What does a wunderkind do with a Princeton PhD by 23? He went to study cosmology and quantum field theory with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge. Like most super-geniuses this was just the beginning. He left Hawking to start a computer start-up in California, which was soon snapped up by Microsoft. He then worked at Microsoft for 13 years, launching many of their best selling products, the Microsoft research division, and running a bunch of the company as the Chief Technology Officer (also getting filthy rich). After leaving Microsoft he has broadened into a variety of scientific and technical ventures, and is currently wrapped up in running an ‘invention company’ called Intellectual Ventures that is shaking some of the foundations of invention with its approach to brainstorming the future of everything from semiconductors to lasers that shoot mosquitos out of the air and biotechnology (there will be a future post on their methods). He holds many patents and has published widely in the top echelons of science.
That is the geek cred, which is pretty A+ stuff. Along the way, however, he has demonstrated an amazingly diverse and rounded taste for life. He is a master French chef (once an assistant chef in a top Seattle French restaurant). He is a paleontologist. Not just a museum-dwelling paleontologist, but a get-your-hands-in-the-dirt digging up dinosaur bones in Montana every year paleotologist. He has a complete t-rex skeleton in his living room. He is a world champion barbecue master (winning 1st and 2nd in Memphis, TN world championships). He is an award winning nature and wildlife photographer. He is an avid searcher for alien life with SETI. He is a dad, husband, and family man.
Malcolm Gladwell once famously described him as “gregarious, enthusiastic, and nerdy on an epic scale.” I agree.
A few years ago, when my daughter was getting ready for her heart surgery her Yale-educated doctor and I were talking about everything from obscure rock bands to the latest in medical innovations with sonic technology. When I commented on his broad knowledge base, he laughed and said that you never want a doctor whose brain power is fully maxed out with the medical knowledge, instead opting for the doc with enough bandwidth for other pursuits as well. Nathan Myhrvold is an example of breadth on steroids.
What is he doing now? In addition to shooting mosquitos out of the sky to help with the malaria crisis and solving global warming (by building a shield of sulfer in the atmosphere), he has another project he is hot and passionate about. What, you might ask? Working on a cookbook, of course.