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5 big ideas from Microsoft’s original ‘mad scientist’

Nathan Myhrvold
Intellectual Ventures CEO Nathan Myhrvold takes questions during a Hacker News meetup at Atlas WorkBase in Seattle. The T-shirt reads: “Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543.” (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Do a search on “Nathan Myhrvold” and “mad scientist,” and you’ll get nearly 2,000 hits, including profiles from the likes of The New YorkerEsquire and Men’s Journal.

Myhrvold, however, would probably prefer the title of “polymath”: Over the course of his career, the 60-year-old tech wizard has been a postdoc physicist under Stephen Hawking’s wing, Microsoft’s first chief technology officer, founder of Intellectual Ventures, author of Modernist Cuisine and other high-tech cookbooks, and a researcher into topics ranging from dinosaur tails to near-Earth asteroids.

The polymath held forth for more than an hour on such matters and more, without slides or notes, during a Seattle meet-up presented on Aug. 7 by the area’s Hacker News fan group and Cofounders Connect. Is Myhrvold truly mad? Check out these five big ideas from the talk, and then you tell me.

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Tech titan Nathan Myhrvold revisits asteroid flap

Image: Nathan Myhrvold
Nathan Myhrvold shows off a fragment of the Chelyabinsk meteorite in his office at Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, Wash. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

Nathan Myhrvold is back, and this time he’s got peer review on his side.

Two years ago, the Seattle tech pioneer tangled with NASA and the scientists behind an infrared sky survey mission known as NEOWISE, over a data set that cataloged the characteristics of more than 157,000 asteroids.

In a lengthy assessment, Myhrvold said the NEOWISE team had made flawed and misleading correlations between the brightness and the size of asteroids.

In response, NASA pointed to mistakes in Myhrvold’s critique and noted that his claims hadn’t gone through scientific peer review. “It is important that any paper undergo peer review by an independent journal before it can be seriously considered,” NASA said at the time.

If that’s so, then it’s time for serious consideration. Myhrvold’s paper, “An Empirical Examination of WISE/NEOWISE Asteroid Analysis and Results,” has now been published (with corrections of what he acknowledged were mistakes) in the peer-reviewed journal Icarus.

And that’s not all.

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Malaria-hunting AI microscope is ready for debut

Microscopic view of malaria
A microscopic view of a blood sample shows the telltale signs of malaria as purple dots. (Intellectual Ventures Photo)

SAN FRANCISCO — Can artificial intelligence help battle malaria and other infectious diseases? Intellectual Ventures CEO Nathan Myhrvold says it’s time for his company’s AI-enabled microscope to join the fray.

“We’ve gotten to the stage where the machine learning system is better than humans,” Myhrvold said last weekend here at the World Conference of Science Journalists.

He said Intellectual Ventures will announce a partnership with a Chinese company later this month to commercialize the Autoscope technology, which has been under development for years at IV’s lab in Bellevue, Wash.

Myhrvold declined to name the company or provide details about the deal, but he held it up as an example of how technology can further the cause of global health and development.

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‘Modernist Bread’ finds new twists in ancient food

Nathan Myhrvold
Technologist Nathan Myhrvold is on a mission with “Modernist Bread.” (The Cooking Lab, LLC)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Did you ever try inflating bread dough with a bicycle pump? Gourmet technologist Nathan Myhrvold did — and after thumbing through the 2,642 pages of his latest opus, “Modernist Bread,” you just might, too.

Like “Modernist Cuisine,” his earlier work, the new five-volume set of books is bigger than a bread box and costs hundreds of dollars. But although “Modernist Bread” offers hundreds of recipes, these are no common cookbooks: Myhrvold and his co-author, head chef Francisco Migoya, delve into the history of one of the world’s oldest foods, the science and technology of breadmaking, and why stunts like pumping up bread actually work.

“Some people ask me how I could possibly make a 2,600-page book on bread,” Myhrvold told GeekWire, “My answer is, ‘Because I had to hold the line somewhere.’ Seriously, we had lots of material that we had to cut.”

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Need for nuclear option explained, with toasters

If renewable energy is on the rise in America, why should we even bother with nuclear power? Seattle tech maverick Nathan Myhrvold, who’s backing a next-generation nuclear venture called TerraPower, explains the rationale in terms of toasters.

Myhrvold lays out his toaster analogy in an extended video clip from “Nova: The Nuclear Option,” a PBS documentary that premieres tonight.

The program looks at the prospects for nuclear power five years after an earthquake and tsunami dealt a crippling blow to Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant. Fukushima’s foul-up dealt a blow to nuclear power’s image as well, but tonight’s show focuses on next-generation technologies aimed at making fission-generated power safer and easier to manage.

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NASA fires back in spat over asteroid data

Image: WISE spacecraft
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. WISE observations of near-Earth objects were analyzed for the NEOWISE mission. (Credit: NASA)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – NASA issued a statement today disputing Seattle tech icon Nathan Myhrvold’s critique of asteroid data analysis from the space agency’s NEOWISE mission.

The statement follows up on reports published this week by GeekWire and othermedia outlets. In those reports, Myhrvold said NEOWISE’s analysis relied on flawed statistical calculations, which resulted in incorrect or highly uncertain measurements for thousands of asteroids.

When GeekWire showed Myhrvold’s critique to scientists associated with NEOWISE and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, they identified what they said were serious errors – including misinterpretations of NEOWISE’s methods and an apparent confusion between radius and diameter in one key equation. GeekWire’s report on Monday referred to those problems, as well as Myhrvold’s acknowledgment of mistakes.

Today’s NASA statement refers to those errors as “mistakes that an independent peer review process is designed to catch.”

“While critique and re-examination of published results are essential to the scientific process, it is important that any paper undergo peer review by an independent journal before it can be seriously considered,” NASA said. “This completes a necessary step to ensure science results are independently validated, reproducible and of value to the science community.”

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Nathan Myhrvold stirs up an asteroid argument

Image: Nathan Myhrvold
Nathan Myhrvold shows off a fragment of the Chelyabinsk meteorite in his office at Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, Wash. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – Millionaire techie Nathan Myhrvold is used to stirring up controversy over issues ranging from patent licensing to dinosaur growth rates, but now he’s weighing in on an even bigger debate: the search for potentially hazardous asteroids.

In a 110-page research paper posted to the ArXiv pre-print server and submitted to the journal Icarus for peer-reviewed publication, Myhrvold says the most comprehensive survey of near-Earth asteroids ever done, known as NEOWISE, suffers from serious statistical flaws.

“They made a set of numbers that look right, They have what Stephen Colbert calls ‘truthiness.’ But that doesn’t mean they are right,” he told GeekWire today during an interview at the Bellevue headquarters of Intellectual Ventures, the company he founded.

On the other side of the debate, NEOWISE’s principal investigator, Amy Mainzer of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says it’s Myhrvold’s numbers that don’t look right.

“The paper contains multiple mistakes, including the confusion between diameter and radius (which is by itself enough to render the results wrong),” she wrote in an email to GeekWire. “Nonsensical asteroid diameters are presented throughout by the author.”

Mainzer noted that Myhrvold’s paper has not yet gone through formal peer review.

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Robo-tail shows how dinosaurs cracked the whip

Image: Sauropod tail
Researchers assembled a quarter-scale sauropod tail, using 3-D-printed vertebrae and a bullwhip popper, to show that dinosaurs could create sonic booms. (Credit: D. Sivam / P. Currie / N. Myhrvold)

Nathan Myhrvold, the Microsoft millionaire who went on to found Intellectual Ventures, is a huge dinosaur geek. But not just any dinosaur geek: He funds paleontological digs, gets heavily involved in research and keeps a life-size T. rex skeleton in his living room. Now he and other scientists have built a quarter-scale dinosaur tail to show that giant sauropods really could snap their tails at supersonic speeds.

Myhrvold and University of Alberta paleontologist Philip Currie first made that claim 18 years ago, based on computer modeling. But their hand-operated contraption – a 44-pound tail section that’s assembled from 3D-printed vertebrae and tipped with a bullwhip popper – provides an ear-splitting demonstration of the effect.

“Personally, I think one of the most interesting aspects of this is the process of using physical simulations to try to ascertain the behavior of extinct animals,” Dhileep Sivam, a bioinformatics specialist who works at Intellectual Ventures, said in an email.

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