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Intellectual innovator


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									News & Analysis                                                                                                                    physicsweb.org

Profile                                                                                                ventors. Pendry describes these in-
                                                                                                       vention sessions as “lively and soci-

Intellectual innovator
                                                                                                       able” and Myhrvold as “enthusiastic
                                                                                                       and energetic”.
                                                                                                          More controversial, though, is the
                                                                                                       other side of IV’s business. The com-
                                                                                                       pany buys up thousands of existing
                                                                                                       patents, often through a secretive net-
Former physicist                                                                                       work of “shell companies” designed
                                                                                                       to protect IV’s anonymity. This has
Nathan Myhrvold has                                                                                    led some to describe Myhrvold as a
been many things – from                                                                                “patent troll” – a derogatory term for
                                                                                                       someone who hoards patents they
Bill Gates’ right-hand man                                                                             never intend to use in order to sue
                                                                                                       large companies that infringe them.
to the world champion                                                                                  But Myhrvold shrugs off his critics.
of barbecue. He tells                                                                                  “They’re engaging in what psycholo-
                                                                                                       gists call projection – they assume that
Martin Griffiths how he is                                                                             what I’ll do is what they would do,” he
now hoping to change                                                                                   says. He points out that IV has never
                                                                                                       filed a patent lawsuit, and that litiga-
the way the world invents                                                                              tion is an inefficient way to do busi-
                                                                                                       ness. “It’s a failure of imagination to
                                                                                                       believe that litigation is what this is
                                                                                                       about,” he says.
                                                                                                          A failure of imagination is not
                                                                                                       something that Myhrvold could be
Nathan Myhrvold has only ever Inventive mind
worked for three people: first Stephen Nathan Myhrvold.   In person                                    accused of. He is passionate about the
                                                                                                       power of new ideas to change the
Hawking; then Steve Ballmer, current                                                                   world. “Invention is a great thing to
chief executive of Microsoft; and                         Born: Seattle, Washington, 1959              do, and the world doesn’t do enough
finally Bill Gates. “Each had more                        Education: University of California at       of it,” he says. Indeed, he is critical of
money and less formal education than                      Los Angeles (BA, MS), Princeton University   Silicon Valley firms for taking a short-
the last,” jokes Myhrvold, “so I had                      (MA, PhD)                                    term approach and failing to encour-
nowhere left to go.” Maybe that is                        Career: University of Cambridge (1983–       age research. Myhrvold’s enthusiasm
part of the reason that Myhrvold, a                       1984), chief executive of Dynamical          for invention was the spur for him
former physicist, left his job as chief                   Systems (1984–1986), various positions       establishing Microsoft Research in
strategist and head of technology at                      at Microsoft (1986–2000), chief executive    1991 and he is proud of, but con-
Microsoft in 2000 and set out on his                      of Intellectual Ventures (2000 onwards)      cerned by, the fact that it makes him
own to revolutionize the intellectual-                    Outside interests: cookery, photography      one of the few living founders of an
property market.                                          Family: married, two sons                    industrial research laboratory.
   Myhrvold’s company, Intellectual                                                                       Myhrvold feels that there is a wealth
Ventures (IV), does not make any-                                                                      of untapped ideas in the world, and
thing. Instead, it trades in ideas, specif-               be more suited to new spin-out com-          that IV represents a new way to har-
ically patents. Myhrvold has recruited                    panies. For their part, the inventors        vest them. “Highly inventive people
a team of about 30 “senior inventors”                     are paid for their time, and offered a       almost always create more inventions
to think for him – scientists, technol-                   share of any profits resulting from          than they know what to do with – they
ogists and business leaders whom he                       their invention.                             don’t have time to take them seriously,
thinks have not “sold all of their brain”                                                              file patents, or do the business work,”
in their day jobs. By bringing these tal-                 Visionary or troll                           he says. “We make it very easy for in-
ented people from diverse fields to-                      One revolutionary idea that excites          ventors to have ideas that get trac-
gether for “invention sessions” at IV’s                   Myhrvold is the potential of metama-         tion.” He is delighted with IV’s output
offices in Bellevue, Washington, Myhr-                    terials – new materials with structures      of patents in software, semiconduc-
vold hopes to stimulate new ideas that                    that have been artificially engineered       tors, medical devices and many other
his team of lawyers can patent.                           to have unusual electromagnetic              areas, which makes it the 25th biggest
   The approach seems to be working:                      properties, such as a negative refrac-       source of inventions in the US. “If
IV files about 400 patents each year                      tive index (see Physics World Septem-        there were 100 more outfits like ours,”
based on the ideas of its inventors.                      ber 2006 pp30–32). “At the moment            he says, “there would be a measurable
The model for making money from                           it’s a zero billion dollar business – an     change in technological progress.”
these patents varies. For what Myhr-                      answer in search of a question,” he
vold calls “evolutionary ideas” – in-                     says. “But we’re optimistic that the         From Hawking to Gates
cremental progress in areas that                          question will pop up and the answer          Myhrvold, 47, graduated from high
already have a large market – IV will Invention is a      will be valuable. If so, we’ll look very     school at 14. A decade later, he had
usually license its patents to existing great thing to    smart.” Sir John Pendry, a theoretical       two Masters degrees and a PhD in the-
companies. But Myhrvold is more do, and the               physicist at Imperial College London         oretical physics, before going to the
excited about “revolutionary ideas”,                      who last year revealed a design for an       University of Cambridge as Stephen
those that are at least five years away world doesn’t     “invisibility cloak” using metamater-        Hawking’s postdoc. He says his re-
from commercialization and so might do enough of it       ials, is on Myhrvold’s roll-call of in-      search in quantum gravity was fascin-

12                                                                                                                       Physics World March 2007
physicsweb.org                                                                                                                    News & Analysis

ating, and that he misses it “to a de-      UK research
gree”. As for Hawking himself, Myhr-
vold has nothing but admiration. “It is
impossible to feel sorry for yourself
while working with Stephen,” he says.
                                            Cambridge physics breaks new ground
“This guy has physical challenges that

                                                                                                                                                             Building Design Partnership
would crush the spirit of anyone, but       Ever since the days of Maxwell, Thom-
they don’t crush his spirit at all.”        son and Rutherford, the University of
   But after a year at Cambridge, Myhr-     Cambridge has been rightly recog-
vold took a leave of absence to help        nized for the quality of its physics
friends from graduate school found          research. But physics at Cambridge,
a software company in California, and       which is centred on the world-famous
he never came back. Dynamical Sys-          Cavendish Laboratory, is about to
tems was bought by Microsoft in 1986        boosted by the building of a new
and Myhrvold went with it. However,         centre for the physics of medicine and
Myhrvold has stayed in touch with           a cosmology institute. The university
physics and has strong views on the         is also making a string of new appoint-
recent debate over string theory. He        ments in physics.
sides with critics such as Peter Woit and      The centre for the physics of medi-
Lee Smolin, who argue that string the-      cine is in fact just the first phase of a   Bold vision              cold atoms and one in fundamental
ory has encouraged theoretical physi-       grand 20-year plan to redevelop the         Cambridge’s new          semiconductor physics.
cists to put all their eggs in one basket   entire Cavendish Laboratory, which          centre for the physics      Other developments include an ex-
– and a basket that makes no testable       is currently housed in energy-inef-         of medicine is the       tensive hiring programme, which has
predictions at that. However, he does       ficient buildings from the 1970s. Al-       first phase of a plan    already resulted in eight new lecturers
admit some personal bias – he was           though details of the plan have not         to redevelop the         being appointed in atomic, biological
Woit’s room-mate and used to house-         been finalized, it would – if approved      entire Cavendish         and high-energy physics. Three new
sit for Smolin while he was a graduate      by the university – involve knocking        Laboratory.              professors will also be recruited, in-
student at Princeton.                       down the entire laboratory and re-                                   cluding Jeremy Baumberg – the cur-
   Myhrvold’s distrust of string theory     building it at a cost of up to £120m.                                rent head of the quantum, light and
also reflects his tendency to back the         Work on the £12.5m multidisciplin-                                matter group at Southampton Uni-
underdog. He has donated $1m to the         ary centre, which is being funded                                    versity, who will be moving to Cam-
SETI Institute, partly because he was       by the government and the Wolfson                                    bridge in the autumn.
impressed by its “heroic” efforts in        Foundation charity, will begin next                                     Meanwhile, a short distance away
searching for life elsewhere in the uni-    month. When complete towards the                                     from the Cavendish, contractors have
verse, work that has only a slim chance     end of 2008, the centre – in the                                     already started work on a new £7.5m
of success. “I always like to support       grounds of the existing Cavendish –                                  Kavli Institute for Cosmology, which
stuff other people don’t,” he says:         will house over 100 postdocs and stu-                                is set to open in October next year.
“Giving to the usual suspects has lit-      dents, and be led by eight permanent                                 The institute is named in honour of
tle impact.” Myhrvold also funds re-        staff, four of whom will be physicists.                              Fred Kavli, the Norwegian-born phy-
search into dinosaur palaeontology,            Researchers at the centre will work                               sicist and philanthropist who set up
and even does some research on the          on a range of problems at the inter-                                 the US-based Kavli Foundation in
topic on the side. In 2000 he had a         face between physics and the life sci-                               2000 (Physics World November 2006
paper published in Nature on his co-        ences, such as studying the location                                 p13). A £4m endowment from the
discovery of a bird-like tail bone from     and dynamics of molecules within                                     foundation will pay for a series of five-
a non-avian dinosaur in Mongolia.           cells, using pattern recognition to un-                              year “Kavli fellowships”, while the
Most people’s hobbies do not end up         derstand developing embryos, and                                     additional £4m costs of the building
being published in leading scientific       examining how low-level noise can                                    are being met by the university itself.
journals, but then Myhrvold makes a         disrupt the way in which cells signal.                                  Bringing together as many as 55
habit of excelling.                            “Physics on its own can be very                                   existing Cambridge researchers, the
   A case in point is his passion for       clever, but solving real problems rela-                              new institute will be led by George
cookery, which led to him training as a     ting to the quality of life adds a new                               Efstathiou, the current director of the
French chef, working part-time in a         dimension to the intellectual chal-                                  university’s Institute of Astrophysics.
top Seattle restaurant and winning          lenge and satisfaction,” says Athene                                 He says that the institute will focus on
the barbecue world championship in          Donald, deputy head of physics at the       Physics on its           four or five flagship projects that will
Memphis in 1991. Myhrvold is even           Cavendish, who is helping to set up         own can be               include the study of the cosmic micro-
working on a cookbook that will in-         the centre.                                                          wave background and the evolution of
clude a section on “physics for chefs”,        The Cavendish is also focusing on        very clever,             high-redshift galaxies.
which will cover using the heat-diffu-      more traditional parts of physics. It       but solving                 “Kavli fellows will have complete
sion equation to explain how quickly        has recently formed a new £6m col-          real problems            freedom to do the research that they
a steak cooks.                              laboration in quantum physics with          relating to the          want,” says Efstathiou. The institute
   With all these projects on the boil,     researchers from Imperial College                                    will be part of a network of 13 Kavli re-
Myhrvold admits that he rarely has          London and Oxford University. Fun-          quality of life          search centres around the world. And
time to sit back and relax. But his rest-   ded by the Engineering and Physical         adds a new               as the Kavli endowment includes funds
less enthusiasm seems unlikely to           Sciences Research Council, the col-         dimension to             for an outreach centre to complement
pause for breath any time soon. As          laboration will be led by Peter Little-                              the Cavendish’s already active public-
Pendry remarks in passing, “Have you        wood, current head of the Cavendish.
                                                                                        the intellectual         outreach programmes, staff will soon
asked him about his plan to salvage         The lab also plans to set up three new      challenge and            have a lot to shout about.
obelisks from the Nile?”                    experimental groups – two in ultra-         satisfaction             D Jason Palmer

Physics World March 2007                                                                                                                               13

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