Nathan Myhrvold: How a Geek Grills a Burger
Credit: Photograph by Chris Buck

As usual, Nathan Myhrvold has to get the dinosaur question out of the way first: Is it true, asks a saucer-eyed brunette with cleavage bursting through her zip-front denim jumpsuit, that he has a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in a glass solarium in his massive Bellevue, Washington, home?

"Hahahahaha!" Myhrvold guffaws. Sigh. "Yeah."

"That is amazing," the woman coos. The dinosaur as decor is indeed impressive, but Myhrvold, being Myhrvold, is a bit embarrassed to report that he didn't actually discover the skeleton himself. "I bought it," explains the former Microsoft technology guru. "It's like having the head of someone else's deer on your wall!"

Which is why, he says, he later bankrolled a team of paleontologists, led by the consultant from the film 'Jurassic Park,' to comb the Montana badlands until they discovered a T. rex for him, which Myhrvold donated to the Smithsonian. Then his team discovered 11 more – the most T. rexes found by a single team in the past 100 years.

But we're not here for the dinosaurs – or to review what Myhrvold learned studying astrophysics with Stephen Hawking or to discuss his Formula One race-car period or the bungee jumping or nature photography or scuba diving or spelunking or fly-fishing. We're in his vast and brightly lit laboratory, surrounded by glass beakers and humming machines, to talk about food. And not just food but, in fact, molecular gastronomy, the avant-garde approach to cooking that uses chemistry and technology to invent novel, even ludicrous, edible creations. Tonight Myhrvold is putting on the equivalent of a NASA cooking show in front of two intimate tables of pros, including Andoni Luis Aduriz, chef at the number-three restaurant in the world, Spain's Mugaritz; Scott Boswell of New Orleans French Quarter's bistro Stella!; and Johnny Iuzzini, pastry chef at Jean Georges, on whose arm we find Claire Robinson, the bubbly Food Network hostess and Myhrvold's jumpsuited dinosaur inquisitor.

Standing with formal authority in his white chef's smock, Myhrvold beams with delight as he presents a tiny cracker with a butter spread made of peas that were spun in a centrifuge at 50,000 times the Earth's gravity for one hour. Here, ladies and gentlemen, are French fries that have been soaked in an ultrasonic bath, perfectly crisped and ready for dipping in a creamy bone-marrow mousse. Have a sip of this mushroom cappuccino topped with whipped bacon cream. This preposterously tender roast chicken? Myhrvold injected it with brine and hung it for three days in a refrigerator, roasted it for four and a half hours at 145 degrees, then cooked it for five minutes at 600 degrees. "We use liquid nitrogen to chill it first," he says, "because that really keeps the inside moist."

If this food is far out, that's where Myhrvold generally resides. He takes his hobbies, like dinosaurs and cooking, to baroque extremes, unconstrained by money. Retiring in 1999 as Bill Gates' personal tech visionary at Microsoft – Gates once called him the smartest man he knows – Myhrvold has a net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The two live in the same lush, woody neighborhood of techno-mega-mansions near Lake Washington, a few miles from Microsoft headquarters.

The dinner is to showcase Myhrvold's most recent spike in the ground: a six-volume, 2,438-page cookbook called 'Modernist Cuisine.' It's a lavish objet d'art bursting with lush photography and elaborate, painstakingly researched charts, diagrams, maps, and formulas. The book costs $625, took nearly 10 years (and well over a million dollars of Myhrvold's own money) to produce, and is, by every account, the final word on the science of cooking.

It explores everything from the spherification of liquids to the microregional barbecues of the southeastern United States. It documents the exact ways steak and hamburgers cook on a grill, down to the molecular level, with annotated pictures taken with high-powered microscope cameras.

Here in this lab, he explains, a full-time staff of 18 helped him perform tasks like cutting open convection ovens and coffeemakers with lasers to expose how they work from the inside out and filming bullets with a stop-motion camera as they pierce ballistics gelatin and eggs and other foods. Why?

"Because, why not?" he says, happy you asked. "If you have a block of ballistics gelatin and a high-speed camera, pretty soon somebody gets a gun!" Some of it is even practical – like Myhrvold's advice that you "hyper-decant" a bottle of young red wine by putting it in a blender for one minute. "Particularly if you have a wine expert over," he says. "Because, oh, my God, the look on their face is worth the whole thing."

Fair haired and cherub-faced, Myhrvold has the wide-eyed, and somewhat maniacal, presence of Gene Wilder in 'Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,' giving off high-pitched, nutty-professor chuckles as he shows off a local clam with a large, offensive-looking appendage coming out of it.

But believe it or not, Myhrvold also wants to be taken seriously. At 53, he isn't satisfied with going down in history as the biggest lobe in Bill Gates' brain trust, or even as an eccentric Renaissance man with a dinosaur in his house. He wants a legacy he can call his own. And instead of focusing on one big thing, he's hedging his bets: The lab where we're dining isn't just an experimental kitchen for his landmark book but a 20,000-square-foot research center for the exploration and creation of new technologies. It houses obscure inventions like "an incredibly exotic antenna that will one day revolutionize communications" and a refrigerated closet full of mosquitoes for vaccine experiments. "In fact, if you come this way," he says, during a guided tour, "we actually have a system where we can shoot mosquitoes out of the sky with lasers."

Myhrvold is founder and CEO of a kind of invention incubator called Intellectual Ventures, a company that both invests in new things and manages a portfolio of tens of thousands of patents acquired with money from big investors, including Gates. "If we could create invention capitalism," he says, "that would be a helluva legacy, that would be a helluva thing to do....We could actually turbocharge the rate at which the world invents things. I thought that was a cool idea."

It's not all mad-scientist hijinks, though. In recent years, Myhrvold has developed a reputation as a "patent troll," attacked by critics who say he's operating a kind of roving pirate ship that scoops up patents for mobile phone and internet software and then extracts fees from companies that need them to develop new or more advanced products.

Some feel Myhrvold has become a bottleneck to progress, not a catalyst for it. And stories abound of Myhrvold's company profiting from patent trolling. It's a reputation he acknowledged with a rueful joke at a TED Conference in 2007, saying he'd been cast as "the nerd Tony Soprano," displaying a headline from a Norwegian magazine profile: PATENTMONSTERET. "I'm not thinking monsteret is a good thing," he says. Myhrvold, in addition to being credited for his patents, would clearly enjoy being liked as well.

"Words can hurt you," he tells me. "In the larger world, it frames how people think about you, and it can hurt you in lots of little, subtle ways." Which is perhaps where the cookbook comes in. If there's a recipe for having one's space-age cake and eating it, too – being respected but also beloved, like Steve Jobs – Nathan Myhrvold is determined to find it.

Inside his office at Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, Myhrvold has an elaborate shadow box mounted on the wall, featuring all the elements in the periodic table. Besides being amazingly beautiful, almost all of the 118 compartments contain actual samples of the elements, including the gases. "The noble gases are in little neon signs that light up," he says. "Some of the other radioactive ones are in there – but not the most radioactive ones."

Myhrvold is himself a man of many compartments, conversant in a wide array of sciences. He has two master's degrees, one in geophysics and space physics, another in mathematical economics, and a Ph.D. in theoretical and mathematical physics. In the early 1980s, he studied quantum field theory with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge, but he gave it up to pursue a more lucrative career, starting a computer company called Dynamical Systems Research with his younger brother, Cameron. After two years, the business was acquired by Microsoft for $1.5 million, beginning a long relationship with Bill Gates. Myhrvold spent 13 years at Microsoft, becoming chief technology officer and launching its research arm, which incubated things like Kinect for Xbox 360 and many iterations of Windows.

In 1995, Myhrvold and Gates co-wrote the bestseller 'The Road Ahead.' A big part of Myhrvold's job was producing research reports describing in precise terms what the future of computing would look like so that Microsoft could exploit it. He was often pretty damned accurate: In 1991, Myhrvold predicted the emergence of the iPhone down to the smallest detail, describing a "digital wallet" that would consolidate all personal communication – telephone, schedule manager, notepad, contacts, and a library of music and books, all in one. It would record and archive everything you asked it to, he surmised. "The cost will not be very high," he wrote. "It is pretty easy to imagine a $400 to $1,000 retail price." Microsoft, however, was too cost conscious and risk averse to execute Myhrvold's vision. "Hey, it was better than predicting the wrong thing," Myhrvold says now. "Sitting around being bitter all the time, that's not fun. But Microsoft certainly could have done more about it. One of the greatest things that Apple and Jobs were very good at doing was daring to do the very different thing.

"It's what I did with my cookbook, frankly," he adds.