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Mile wide, inch deep

Nathan Myrvold found himself in a hotel lobby in southern Chile, using the wifi and looking at a strange, abstract photo. “Is that Jackson Pollack?” a woman in the lobby asked. “No, it’s penguin shit.” As he began to explain the physics of penguin shit – including modeling it as Pousel flow, she stopped him and said, “Who are you? What do you do?”

That’s the focus of Myrvold’s talk… if it can be said to have a focus. He acknowledges that he’s sometimes considered to be a patent troll, and shows an imagine where a Norwegian magazine declares him “Patentmonsteret”.

But he considers himself an archeologist, inventor, paleologist, chef, photographer and, well, half a dozen other things.

We quickly visit his research in Easter Island, looking at the huge stone heads and wondering “Why would you commit ecological suicide to make more of these heads?” He points out that the heads that are still buried have glassy smooth surfaces – he’s now digitizing as many as possible in very high resolution.

Myrvold is trying to design a new type of nuclear reactor, which doesn’t require quite as many hugely expensive, extremely dangerous steps. He’s playing with a technology that can deflect microwaves, making these objects functionally invisible, though only to microwaves. (He calls is a “negative billion dollar idea.) He’s looking at methods for disease diagnosis by looking at pictures of the retina. And he’s got a barbeque smoker that looks significantly more complicated than his nuclear reactor design. (Yes, he took a leave from Microsoft to study French cooking. And yes, he was a member of a world championship barbeque team.) Here he’s clearly got some great toys, advising us all to put lab centrifuges in our kitchens – “a force fifty thousands times the force of gravity – you wouldn’t believe how it clears chicken stock.”

He goes through his support for SETI research, acknowledging that either he or
Paul Allen might be “the creepy rich guy” depicted in the movie Contact. He shows us a dig for T. Rex and a reconstructed T. Rex skeleton in his living room, which looks roughly like my college’s science library. And we see photos of orcas having sex – “If penthouse magazine had a marine mammals edition, this would be the centerfold” – which is a great excuse for whale sex jokes.

He acknowledges that this talk is “a mile wide and an inch deep” but explains “that works for me.” It didn’t work for me – I thought it gave an impression of someone showing off his wealth and his toys, but I certainly have to acknowledge that Myrvold knows a whole lot about lots of things and is clearly one of the most passionate and engaged people in the room.