Where Have All the Crazy Inventors Gone?

Interviews with people who shape our culture.
Dec. 7 2011 1:41 PM

Where Have All the Crazy Inventors Gone?

Tech visionary Nathan Myhrvold on why American innovation is lagging.

Nathan Myhrvold, in a conversation with Jacob Weisberg.
Nathan Myhrvold, in a conversation with Jacob Weisberg.

Video still.

Nathan Myhrvold is a connoisseur of invention. The onetime CTO of Microsoft founded Intellectual Ventures in the year 2000 to acquire and license patents, and the company has amassed 30,000 patents in the years since. Where others see the spirit of innovation in the United States in decline, Myhrvold is ultimately bullish. 

The tech visionary recently sat down with Slate’s Jacob Weisberg for a wide-ranging interview about everything from why he’s pro-nuke to the charms of molecular gastronomy to the relative merits of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

A trained mathematical physicist who once worked under Stephen Hawking, Myhrvold is now focused on technological solutions to what might be considered existential problems, like global warming. And he considers nuclear power part of that solution. When an earthquake and tsunami crippled a nuclear power plant in Japan this year, causing the largest radiation leak since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, it was an “I told you so” moment for opponents of nuclear energy. But Myhrvold insists the negative reaction is irrational. 

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Myhrvold acknowledges that alternative energy sources aren’t where they need to be yet, but he remains optimistic.  “The bad news is we need a miracle,” he tells Weisberg.  “The good news is we’re good at miracles!”

When he isn’t patent-hunting or contemplating how to slow global warming, Myhrvold loves to cook. Perhaps not surprisingly, he applies scientific principles in the kitchen, which are at the heart of his six-volume, 2,400-page cookbook, Modernist Cuisine: The Art of Science and Cooking, published this year. According to Myhrvold, food is at the center of a lot of our social issues. “If you can make food that’s good for you and delicious, that solves some pretty major societal problems.”

Here’s an excerpt from Myhrvold’s interview, the latest in our series Conversations With Slate

See Part 1 of the interview with Nathan Myhrvold as well as Part 3 and Part 4. Look for an audio podcast of the entire conversation in the days ahead.

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