6. Nathan Myhrvold: “I Am Interested in Lots of Things, and That's Actually a Bad Strategy”People I (Mostly) Admire
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- 31 Oct 2020
He graduated high school at 14, and by 23 had several graduate degrees and was a research assistant with Stephen Hawking. He became the first chief technology officer at Microsoft (without having ever studied computer science) and then started a company focused on big questions — like how to provide the world with clean energy and how to optimize pizza-baking. Find out what makes Nathan Myhrvold’s fertile mind tick, and which of his many ideas Steve Levitt likes the most.
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Verified dust up is out.
Now listen and stitcher Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcasts. Problems that are hard are usually hard because of the set of perspectives and tools that have been used to try to solve them. So you have to always ask and bring something new to this problem.
And if you're not, then you should say, well, maybe I should either try to get a different perspective or a different tool the thing, or maybe give it a rest and work on something that I do know a little more progress with.
So there are people who know a lot about a few narrow topics, and then there are other people who know a little bit about just about everything.
And then there's Nathan Myhrvold, who knows everything about everything.
Welcome to people I mostly admire with Steve Levitt.
I first met Nathan maybe a decade ago, and from the very first time I met him, I was just blown away by his intellect and his enthusiasm.
And I've never asked him a question where he didn't give me an answer that was just profound and detailed and knowledgeable. And what I love about talking to Nathan is not only that I learn a lot from him, but somehow he makes me feel like everything in the world is interesting.
Nathan Myhrvold, physicist, inventor, cookbook author, archeologist, tech mogul, scholar of Penguin Poop and Dinosaur six.
Let's just start at the beginning. You graduate from high school when you were 14 years old, you skipped four grades. Were you a likable kid or were you the most annoying kid that ever existed?
You know, it's very difficult for a teenager to have that perspective on themselves famously. And, you know, I was never the weirdest kid in class or the most misfit kid.
So in the pecking order, you were always at least one from the bottom with someone who could bully.
Well, it's not so much that I could bully, is you know, I was never good at P.E. because I was three or four years younger than all of the other kids. Right. But I was never the worst. And the same thing was true with being socially awkward. I was more socially awkward, but it was the worst. Oh, no, there were others.
Was it your idea to skip all those grade there with your moms?
Oh, it was my idea. It was just so damn boring otherwise. And you don't regret it. Looking back, you know, we only get to live our lives once. So who knows what it would be like if I'd taken a different path? I, I don't know, but I certainly don't regret any of it. All right.
So then you went to UCLA and you've got an undergraduate degree there and two masters, and then you went to Princeton, where you collected, I think, another master's degree, and then you got your physics Ph.D., which eventually led you to Cambridge. I don't know, at the age of, say, twenty three. Were you studied postdoc with Stephen Hawking? What was he like? I've always wanted to ask someone that question. I've never known anyone who knew him.
Oh, Steven was great.
He had a terrific sense of humor, which made it very, very hard to feel sorry for yourself if you were with Steven, because here's this guy who is telling jokes and laughing and enjoying life. And he he's under such impossible physical circumstances. Do you think, oh, my God, how does he get the energy? How does he not just crumple into a ball? And I asked him once and he said, well, actually his condition was the advantage.
And Steven, what do you mean it was an advantage? This is well, they don't expect me to go to committee meetings.
They don't expect me to do anything I don't want to do. And so I get to think about my physics.
I said, sure, but see, my physics is still harder, isn't it? And he said, well, he found that his condition meant that he couldn't take notes, so we had to simplify everything to just a couple of core concepts. And he thought that discipline actually helped his science.
So this was roughly 1980. He wasn't yet a celebrity. I've heard from some physicists much later who may have just been petty and jealous that he wasn't really that great of a physicist. Would you say that's true or is that completely off base?
I think that's off base. You know, it's always hard to say what makes a great, great scientist. You can look at the achievements that they have. And that's certainly one approach. A different approach is to look at how hard was it to find some cool achievement in the era that they were in. In the 1930s, for example, quantum mechanics had just been discovered, and from then through the nineteen sixties, pretty much any decent physicist could count on finding some effect or some new thing and getting it named after them.
It doesn't mean that physics was easy, but we had a very exciting possibility of a new conceptual framework, both relativity theory and quantum theory. And now we have to apply it to lots of things. Now, in the period where Stephen was active, there wasn't that much. The last thing that we can exploit like that, I suppose, was general relativity.
And so Stephen did some amazing work in general relativity. And anybody who says that Stephen isn't a great physicist, I would say, OK, now tell me your answer. What the singularity theorems, which are very impressive intellectual feats that help us understand that assuming our understanding of physics is correct, there had to be a singularity in the universe. There has to be something like the big bang or end in a black hole. Very, very powerful things don't.
Stephen then turned to try to make sense of more fundamental physics, how you take quantum mechanics and connect it with general relativity. Of course, so did everybody else. And during this last period of 30, 40 years, there's been very little progress. The last couple big things were the completion of what today people call the standard model of particle physics. Well, Stephen and others tried very hard to reconcile the standard model and particle physics as we knew it with general relativity and gravity.
And clearly, that reconciliation has to occur because both theories exist in the same universe. And we've not been able to figure out how to do it. Recently, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN looked for one of the missing pieces of the standard model of the Higgs boson and of course, they found the Higgs boson. That was a wonderful achievement. But everybody involved thought they would find the next clue to fundamental physics. And they didn't. So, you know, if you say, well, gee, Steve didn't solve that problem, I would say yes and neither did anybody else during that period.
We have the same evidence that we've had in the past that shows gravity and particle physics must be reconciled. And we don't have any new clue, you know, without a new clue. It's really hard to make progress.
So you're saying that the lack of new empirical data is impeding the ability of theory to progress at the moment?
I would say that's hugely true. Now, it's a little funny because there are some episodes in the history of science, Newton figuring out Newtonian gravity and Einstein figuring out general relativity when that was done with only the barest minimum of any empirical clues. Now, unfortunately, we haven't had a scientist like that since Einstein. And if you count Newton as the previous one, we may only get them every five hundred years for a long time.
The one thing that seems really different to me about economics and physics is that the set of questions that economists try to answer, it's huge. There are thousands and thousands of things that an economist could specialize in, that one person might study. I don't know racial bias in policing for a decade or models of job search or pricing of durable goods and as a consequence, on any given narrow economic topic. There's only a handful, two or three or four or maybe one expert, one really knowledgeable economist.
But in physics, I get the impression that there's a handful of problems six, seven, 10. I don't know the number. And everybody works on the same problem, which is a completely different way of organizing a scientific discipline.
Well, I think your characterization is, broadly speaking, correct. Now, there are some fields of physics where that's not the case. A solid state physics, for example, has a fair number of different subfields, I think would be unfair to say everyone's working on the same thing when it comes to particle physics and what the fundamental theory of the universe is. We did two things. One is we had lots of people working on the same problem. That's correct.
The second thing is that they also double down on particular theoretical approaches. So string theory was just starting to become popular. When I was in graduate school, it had been around one form or another since the 1960s. But in eighty three, when I got my PhD, the string theory became a incredibly hot topic without there being that much actual progress. And so I think in an economist terms, the field overinvested in string theory and now it's turned out that we don't have that much to show for that happens.
People make big bets that don't open up. I remember back when I was a postdoc at the Society Fellows at Harvard and I would spend time with physicists. The only time I really spent time in physics and I remember thinking how glad I was an economist because the physicists who are afraid to take a vacation, because if they went away for two weeks, they felt like they were going to fall hopelessly behind. And all of the people working on the same problem were going to like race ahead of them and they'd never catch up.
The interesting incentives that were in place because people were working in such a competitive environment with everybody working on the same problem, is that one of the reasons you steered clear of academic physics?
Well, I never like decided I'm leaving physics. Instead, I worked in graduate school with a couple of friends on a software project on some of the first pieces that existed, because it was right around that time we got excited about it. I kept working on it when I was a postdoc. And I eventually took a leave of absence from my postdoc with Steven to go work on this software project. And I thought I'd be back in six months. And after many, many years, like 15 years, something like that, it was announced I was retiring from Microsoft and I got this email from Stephen saying, Shall we clean out the office?
So I always intended to go back. But I got to say, it's not been that intriguing for me to go back because the field has been stuck in the conundrum it's currently in.
Do you remember the first time that you met Bill Gates and what was that like?
Oh, I definitely remember I come up to Microsoft to talk to them about my company. They thought they needed the technology. And I wound up meeting Charles Simmone and Steve Ballmer and others. And we seem to have a good discussion. And this is wait a minute, we're going to arrange one more meeting for you. And they brought me in to see Bill.
And I had a great meeting with Bill. And I suppose if I'd had a bad meeting, subsequent history could have been quite different.
So this was in nineteen eighty six. Was Microsoft a big deal? I don't even know. Microsoft was a big deal then, was it.
Well, they had gone public and Microsoft was a very prominent company because they were doing both applications and languages like Microsoft Basic, and they had released one version of Windows which was still not very user friendly because it was its very first version.
So Microsoft was a big deal in the industry, but it wasn't like the company that it became and so used somehow very quickly became chief technology officer.
Initially, I was director of special projects. It took a few years before I was chief technology officer and I became the chief technology officer at Microsoft, never having had a computer science class. Hmmm.
Now I wound up learning computer science very thoroughly, but I never did have a class in it.
So you made a lot of money clearly being there and then you decided to leave, you decided to start Intellectual Ventures. What was your thinking behind jumping off the ship at Microsoft?
Well, I had a great time at Microsoft, but it was a very evolving thing. And so I had one pursuit of mine that took 80 or 90 percent of my waking hours. And I kind of wanted to do some other stuff because I've always had lots of interests. And that didn't stop when I was at Microsoft, but I had very little time to pursue them. You know, there's only one institution in life where they give you time off for good behavior, and that's prison.
Most jobs, if you perform very well, you might get raises and bonuses, but you also typically get more responsibility.
And, you know, the easiest thing is just keep going and stay in that rut for a much longer period of time. I thought, well, why so?
So I left and describe Intellectual Ventures. It's not quite like anything I've ever seen before.
So Intellectual Ventures is dedicated to the idea of inventing new technology. We try to come up with new solutions to various technical problems, some of which are big and broad. As you know, we've worked a bunch on what would a technological fix to climate change be. We also work on. Narrower things like how would you make airplane wings more efficient or what our new approaches for using A.I. in health. So it's it's quite a set of activities.
So you created something you call the Selter Sync, which is a way of defanging hurricanes. Could you explain in simple terms what the idea was?
Yeah. So a hurricane draws all of its energy from hot water on the surface of a tropical ocean. And the problem is the sun beats down on the ocean, makes the water warm, but the warmer the water is, the more buoyant it is. And so it really stops turning over and stops mixing. And that allows it to get warmer and warmer yet. So to be a strong hurricane, you need to have the surface water be at least 80 degrees, 82 degrees Fahrenheit, and it can get up well over 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
And it's heat energy that stored in that top layer of the ocean that ultimately drives the winds and powers a hurricane.
So in conjunction with a guy named Steven Salter from the UK, we had this idea, why don't you come up with a way of mixing the water? Because even though there's that layer at the top, if you go down 50 feet, 100 feet, water is much colder. So you say, well, how do you mix the water? Well, nature's way of mixing the water is a hurricane. The idea behind this whole thing is you have a pump, if you will, which is made from a giant plastic bag.
So you imagine a trash bag that you could put a sports stadium in. And if you put floats up at the top and you put weights down at the bottom, you're going to show with some pretty simple math that waves will crest over the top, that builds up the water level inside, which pushes water out the bottom. And so it acts like a pump. Well, it turns out it doesn't take very many of these plastic bags to take the water temperature in an area and drop it below the temperature where a hurricane is dangerous.
So we thought, great, we have a way of stopping hurricanes or defending them, as you said, you might stop them altogether if you made a couple paths of cold water out in the ocean, because as a hurricane comes in and if it hits cold water, it tends to bounce off. And we did a variety of work, both computationally and empirically, to show that it works, and then we tried to see if anyone wanted it and nobody wanted it.
Well, effectively, no.
Every now and then, there were after a big hurricane, the next day, they'd say, oh, the prime minister of this or that island is calling. But the problem is that this is the type of thing where the world has not taken a proactive stance against it. There are flooding issues where we do that, we build culverts or diversion of things or levees so that we can take flooding away.
But there's no historical tradition for doing this, the ocean and it wasn't clear who was going to fund it. And it's expensive, of course, to both do the research and to do it, but not at all compared to the impact of even a single hurricane.
You know, like what would it cost, you think, to actually implement this a billion dollars or something like that?
Oh, our estimate is much less than that. These things are literally giant plastic bags. You would make them out of geotech stale cloth, which is effectively a superstrong trash bag. And you could make them out of largely recycled materials quite cheaply, and then you deploy them months before the storm, that's Hurricane Alley, you know, hurricanes come that way. And so you could easily build something that would defend the Gulf Coast of the United States or defend your Caribbean islands.
It's so crazy because you might be wrong. It might not work. But what's the annual damage in the US expected from hurricanes? Tens of billions. Tens of billions.
So you get your return back and a single bad one, the damages, hundreds of billions.
It's just a market failure. Now, there's another funny thing.
It turns out the same size garbage bags are no different sized than a lot of fish farms the world already has.
In fact, whenever I'm flying in an area that has the fish farms, I always look at those could be safer.
Turns out that the surface of the ocean gets really hot and doesn't mix also depletes itself of oxygen. And because it depletes itself of oxygen, fish can't live in it. So it creates large dead zones where you can't have fish. And this first became appreciated when people noticed the fishing was excellent near offshore oil platforms.
Now you say, like, why should that be?
Well, the answer is that the offshore oil platform, when waves hit it, that does cause some mixing and colder oxygen rich water comes up to the surface. So we think this would also be a very pro environmental thing. We just need somebody who says, yeah, I really want to go do it. You're listening to people I mostly admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with polymathic inventor and former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold. They'll return after this short break.
You obviously get a lot of joy out of the inventing. Do you get an equivalent degree of frustration when you create something amazing and nobody will put into place?
So there's two big frustrations of being an inventor. The first is when you can't solve a problem. And of course, most of your ideas do fail. It takes a lot of iteration before you hit on something that really succeeds. And then this is the second one that you can't get the world to adopt it. But it also is kind of the game. We have a unit of our company called Global Good where we work on solving problems in the developing world, problems of poverty.
And there it's frustrating because you're trying to solve things in an environment that's mostly broken, which is, of course, why there's a problem in the first place. But you can't fix directly the reason why it's broken. So what you're trying to do is to say, well, even in a circumstance where there's a poor health care system and rule of law may not be that great. There's all these other issues. What can we do there? The positive thing is even when you make small improvements, it saves lots of lives and that feels good.
Do you want to talk about TerraPower of all the ideas I've ever heard in my entire life? This is the one I found most captivating. The description of it blows my mind every time I hear about it.
OK, well, the world needs clean energy to first order approximation. Our standard of living is driven by the availability of energy. We both need to convert from the carbon based energy to a non carbon based energy. We need to have that solution also extend to some of the poorest places on Earth. So we looked at all of the different ways of doing this and work on several of them. But the thing that is the most practical approach for a carbon free, easily scalable form of energy is nuclear fission.
Fission is, of course, what powers our conventional nuclear reactors are out there today. And you might think, OK, but we've got reactors and we know how to build them. So what's new?
So a normal nuclear reactor burns. And it's funny, the nuclear engineers use the term burn, even though it's got nothing to do with the way a log burns. That's what we all say is burns. It burns a fuel called youtu. Thirty five. Now, you two thirty five is a naturally occurring material, but uranium to thirty five is slightly radioactive. And that means it has a half life, which means it decays. And so roughly half of it goes away every 500 million years.
So we've been through many of these half life things we did in the business four billion years ago. We would have been terrific. So now when you dig uranium up out of the ground, only a tiny fraction of it, less than nine point six of a percent is actually this youtu?
Thirty five. So then you have to go in and Richard.
And the problem with enriching it is, first of all, it's really expensive. And second of all, the enrichment stage takes you about halfway towards making a bomb. And here's the problem.
If you really want to displace coal plants entirely with nuclear, you don't have enough use of the five.
So what we decided the world needed was to say, why don't we invent a brand new kind of reactor, use the fact that our computers are vastly better now than they were 30 years ago when people were designing reactors.
And let's make something that is proliferation resistant so you can't use it to divert material and make bombs.
Let's use something that burns all of the uranium, not just the two thirty five. In fact, let's make something that will burn the waste from current reactors as fuel. And by God, we came up with that. OK, so let me stop you.
So you started by saying, wouldn't it be great if we could do all these things and then we set out to do it or you kind of know you could do it before you started?
Oh, it's always a mixture. If you set yourself up with too many counterfactuals, you might not succeed. If you set yourself up with too few, you'll succeed, but will be very interesting.
So what we set out to do is to make a super simple and low cost effective economics breeder reactor.
That's what we call a passive breeder, meaning the designs people made in the 50s and 60s. Sabrina reactor was extremely complicated. You'd have to continually be taking this highly radioactive fuel out and then separating it. And when you separate it, you've got the possibility of diverting some of it to make bombs. So we didn't want that to be a feature of our reactor. So our analogy is a candle or perhaps wet firewood, you know, when you light a candle.
Where does the fuel for the candle come from? Well, the fuel is the wax, of course, but initially the wax is solid. You can't just light the wax. What happens to the candles when you liked the wick? That just got a tiny bit of the solid wax and you can light it. But then the heat from that candle flame melts a little puddle of the paraffin wax, which then gets sucked up the whip and it burns.
So the candle makes its own fuel. You don't have to go through some complicated things, just like the candle. And that analogy, believe it or not, carries over to fast breeder reactors. You could build a fast breeder reactor that has this up to thirty eight as its fuel is stuff that we would classify today as nuclear waste. And just like the candle, it prepares its own fuel as it runs.
You encase this fuel, you put it underground and it burns like a candle for a bunch of years.
Our main approach, the preferred approach you put the fuel in, you don't take anything out for 60 years. Mm hmm. Now, that's very different than a conventional reactor, a conventional reactor. You have to refuel every 18 months.
And then when you take the stuff out, a lot of it is much less radioactive than conventional waste is today, because it's already lasted for 60 years and it's half lives have run down. And so a lot of the nastiest stuff is gone.
And then you have the possibility, if you wanted to, you could actually redo some parts of it and burn up for another 60 years. Now, here's the interesting thing. In Paducah, Kentucky, there is a US government facility that stores nuclear waste. In particular, it stores this year to thirty eight waste.
Well, there is enough waste in containers in Paducah that US taxpayers are paying people to guard, that you could take Earth to zero carbon and run it for hundreds of years.
Just with the waste that's currently there, it's crazy, and I'm guessing you're going to say it's been really hard to sell this to people.
Yes and no. And yes, it turns out that the United States has been afraid of building nuclear reactors for a long time. We operate our existing reactors. The safety record is excellent, but there's been a public at ease. And I think that that is not based on rational facts. We actually did manage to sell China on building one of these reactors.
Then the US government, in its infinite wisdom, decided that we could. What do you mean you couldn't?
Well, nuclear technology is a government controlled thing that's to be expected, I don't think was anything wrong with that. So for a US company to cooperate with a company in a different country to build a reactor, even if we're doing all the design, you need a license from the government. And the government revoked our license, presumably as part of some anti China notion of, oh, let's not give them our great technology and so on and so forth.
I guess I mean, the fact is we're facing a problem of climate change and we all share the same damn atmosphere. It turns out we're building very few plants here in the US. They're building lots of plants in China. And it's also true that no first of a kind nuclear plant has ever been built without a lot of government money.
Governments around the world have recognized, hey, this is a strategic technology, so we will help fund it.
But we do not yet have a plan to build our reactors in the U.S. that really replace what we had to walk away from. And that's frustrating.
Yeah, but did you ever imagine when you came up with inventions, the implementation would turn out to be so difficult?
Well. We did understand that nuclear is a government regulated thing and there's a public perception that they're dangerous. So, of course, in that area we knew that that was true.
But we also thought, hey, it's a big world. There's lots of countries somebody is going to be rational.
And in fact, the Chinese were rational about it. But then politics got in the way in a different fashion. You're a fool if you don't realize it's more difficult than, say, making a new feature for a social networking app that has everybody making Tic-Tac videos or something.
On the other hand, if all of our best minds just try to outdo tick tock, how the hell are we going to get power?
Is your breeder reactor, can it melt down the same way that the current ones do? Does it actually have a real risk of killing people or not so much.
The reactor at Fukushima is an older design called a boiling water reactor, and a boiling water reactor should not have its electrical power interrupted for more than a few minutes. Well, our reactor is designed, so it is all air cooled, so in fact it can't melt down that way and you could shut it off or have it shut down by itself and walk away and it would be fine. You don't have to do anything. Rather than relying on pumps, we rely on natural air convection.
So as long as there's an atmosphere and there's gravity, it's going to work.
Now, if we don't have an atmosphere of gravity, we have a problem.
You're basically saying, Nathan, this is the solution more or less to the world's problems. Is that your belief?
Well, it is the solution to a baseload energy generation problem.
We don't have any current economic way to store renewables that beats having a power plant like this.
So I think it's a terrific solution to the problem.
You know, this reminds me of something that happened about a decade ago that I'll never forget about you. Nathan, we had just written Super Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner and I, our second book, and we had worked with a bunch of environmentalists on global warming. And we had this chapter where we talked about global warming. And I think it was a thoughtful and honest chapter. And we predicted correctly that the Copenhagen climate meetings were going to be a pretty much a complete failure and that this moral suasion approach to fighting greenhouse gas emissions wasn't going to work.
And ultimately, we argued that we need technological solutions to solve the problem. And we never imagined that this would just launch a firestorm of controversy, that he and I would become a public enemy number one and two of the environmental movement. And what was so interesting is that all of the other scientists in the face of this mob faded into the background. And you alone came forward, Nathan, and you spent a lot of time and effort and reputation defending us and defending what was in there.
And I meant a lot to me. I really appreciate you doing that.
Well, look, you deserve to be helped in that situation. If we abandon rationality in the face of gigantic problems, what the hell are we going to do? Just panic. You have to be rational about it, and unfortunately, when problems become politicized, the the political aspect will add a non rational aspect to it.
The problem that people had is if you talk about a technological solution.
They feel that that takes away from their fire and brimstone is the way I like to describe it, that seems like, oh, you're just a fan of the status quo, which we're not.
We're just genuinely concerned about the earth overheating.
I would argue one of the reasons we're making such little progress is that the market is just not well suited to solving this problem because individual entrepreneurial scientists go off on their own and start their own companies, guard their intellectual property because they're trying to make a profit.
But it really strikes me that we're at this moment in time where we should think hard about somehow incentivizing one hundred or five hundred of the world's best scientists to just put down everything that they're doing and make this their mission. What do you think of that idea?
You know, betting on the intellectual output of a bunch of really smart, motivated people that are in a context where you're not constraining their creativity. That's a bet that almost always pays off. It doesn't always pay off for the company that does it if the company set things up wrong.
That's the famous case of Xerox, which invented a lot of the techniques in modern personal computers and didn't make that much money in it. They weren't a computer company. So doing computing research didn't help them. That much has been on the board of trustees, the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, which is this amazing place for basically very pure academic research in a number of fields.
And they hoped it would improve the world even though it was not an applied place. It was very much a pure academic place.
And they set this up in nineteen thirty nine and by nineteen forty five, John von Neumann, one of the people they'd hired, literally invents the computer and builds an institute for the study, one of the first computers ever.
It actually didn't take any time at all for them to have enormous, enormous impact. It is a shame that we as a society aren't investing in this area, and it would be great if we did something about it.
I couldn't have a conversation with you without talking about cooking, because you've written probably the craziest in a good way cookbook of all time. I actually have to make confessions. I picked up your book and it was delivered to my office. And the only time I hated you, Nathan, was when I decided that I would carry the cookbook home. I mean, I don't know how much it weighs.
50 pounds, 60 pounds, six volumes.
I was literally breaking down under your cookbook, and I thought really hard about abandoning them at the side of the road, although I will say I did finally worn down make it. But it's obvious you had so much fun making that cookbook. Am I right about that? Absolutely.
Yeah. Cooking is fantastic because it's got lots of different threads to it. It is, of course, a process involving chemistry and physics, and the actual process of cooking is governed by the laws of nature as everything is.
Cooking is also a cultural artifact. The kinds of things we eat, the way we like them fixed. Those are important aspects of who we are as a people or as a group.
And we made huge progress as chefs humankind did without knowing the actual science of what we were doing, just kind of empirically tinkering that a long part of the way there, yet then actually do a much better job of cooking, if you really understand it.
So that has created an intermediate cookbooks, and I know that pizza's the next thing that you've got in your crosshairs.
That right? That's right.
The book we're working on right now is on pizza. It's arguably the world's favorite single dish filled with lots of law and legend and superstition. That just isn't correct. And it's a lot of fun.
What's the most surprising thing you've discovered about people along the way?
Well, let's say pizza is baked with light. It turns out that the air temperature in your pizza oven basically doesn't matter. All of the cooking of the pizza is done by infrared radiation bouncing off the ceiling, the walls and the floor of the oven.
And that's true primarily because you are putting at a very high temperature. In fact, in most wood burning pizza ovens.
It's very funny. The wood is put towards the back of the oven.
And the way fresh air gets into the fire, which, of course, it must do in order to feed the fire, is to run right over the pizzas. The pizza actually has a stream of room temperature going into digesting.
But in fact, it's the infrared light from the ceiling that does all of the cooking. And we came up with a clever way to do that. We have a little device that makes a shadow over the pizza.
So lets the air circulate and pass the pizzas raw where the shadow is. I can't wait for the book, but I'm going to have it delivered to my home this time rather than my office, so I don't have to share it.
Yeah, well, this book won't be quite as big as the three volumes, only probably fifteen hundred pages.
I also have to finish up talking to my guests by having them give listeners some advice. So you were obviously a highly talented child and I know your two boys that you raised were also really talented. Do you have advice for parents who happen to find themselves with exceptionally talented kids?
Well, I think that it's a reason to allow kids to be academically gifted. And I say allow because if the kid has it in them, they'll want to do it. You don't have to, like, push them or force them.
If the child is interested in learning and you stifle all of that and you make school a drag, you have a much higher probability of a bad outcome.
But here's the thing that's odd about it, if you have a child who is a gifted runner, then the idea of having them try out for track or whatever else the sport is, and then maybe having your child go to extracurricular coaching or whatever, that's very common in society. If you have a child that's a music prodigy and is able to play the piano or the violin exceptionally well, again, the world is generally very supportive of saying, hey, that child should get all of the help they should and advancement.
What when instead of being sports or music, it's mathematics or science or core academic topics, that's where, strangely, parents and many school administrators and even some teachers were like, oh God, we don't want to make them weird.
And like, I got news, they're weird already.
And of all of the ways to be weird, having kids, it's gifted in math is not so bad.
The notion of saying, oh, well, it's wrong to put them ahead in school, it's wrong to give them extra coaching or support is exactly what you would do to the sports kid or the music kid.
So if you have a child that is talented in academic pursuits, don't starve their little minds, that's just a tremendous way of wasting talent. Yeah, very sensible.
Makes a lot of sense. Do you have any advice on knowing when to quit something?
You know, that is one of the hardest things ever because, of course, we're all familiar with the story of perseverance, winning out.
I tend to not advocate that, actually, there's no point in beating your head against a wall, in my view, after you've given the wall a few good cracks, move over and try to find a softer spot on the wall, for God's sake.
It is great. When. Someone works long, long, long, long hours on a thing and eventually perseveres. I don't mean you should always be a quitter, and that's why I say it's hard to know where that tradeoff is.
But problems that are hard are usually hard because of the set of perspectives and tools. That have been used to try to solve them. We talked about fundamental physics earlier and trying to go beyond the standard model.
So far, we haven't had a lot of luck going beyond the standard model. I think we should keep trying.
But you also have to recognize maybe this is something where we need an insight from some other part of physics or we need an Einstein that can come up with a new theory without any clues. All right, last question.
So what advice would you give on leading a good life, a life worth living? Well, there's times that I'm happy with what I've done, and at times I'm not the I think it comes down to the following things. Are you applying yourself as hard and as well as you could? So am I working towards things that are really going to. The platform that helps better the rest of society, and it's so corny, but being true to yourself is part of it.
I am interested in lots of things. And I know that that's actually a bad strategy. The world is much better at rewarding specialization than they are at generalisation. I would be further along if I had one career rather than five. Mm. And there would be things would be much easier only I just am interested in everything. And at some point trying to deny who you really are just isn't a smart strategy.
I am hugely in favor of logic for almost everything, but the fact that I'm passionate about lots of topics that justice and I talking myself out of it by saying I could have been someone I'd be further along in life if only I had focused.
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