Epiphanies from Nathan Myhrvold

A theoretical physicist who spent 14 years as Bill Gates's ideas guru at Microsoft, Nathan Myhrvold might seem an odd candidate to take up the fight against malaria, long combated with technology no more advanced than bed nets and quinine. Here, he explains why geek power might be exactly what's needed to tackle the scourges of the developing world.

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
Illustration by Joe Ciardiello for FP
Illustration by Joe Ciardiello for FP
Illustration by Joe Ciardiello for FP

Most of what technologists do is to push technology forward, which is a wonderful thing -- I love it -- but it's also about making toys for rich people. We wanted to do some stuff that would really have an impact in the developing world. The most dramatic intervention is we've built this machine that tracks mosquitoes in the sky and shoots them with lasers. Which sounds like a science-fiction fantasy. We thought it was, initially, but damn, we built the thing and it works.


Part of being an inventor is that you have to have a thick skin. There were people who were skeptical a few years ago who argued, "You'll never build that laser thing," but now they're saying, "It won't work in Africa, and at best you'll put it around Disney World to kill the mosquitoes there." Hey, that's not so bad! If we can kill mosquitoes in volume with this thing, then I'll count it as a partial victory.


If one out of 100 malaria ideas succeeds, I'm going to count that as a success, not as 99 failures. That's the magic of ideas; that's the magic of any kind of intellectual creation. The amount of intellectual effort required to write a poem or an article is totally out of proportion to the success of that poem or article. The success of great journalism is vastly out of proportion to the small effort of writing it. Meanwhile, you can work like crazy on something and have no impact. There's nothing fair about it. But our job is to exploit the unfairness in one direction. A good idea can totally change the world.

Most of what technologists do is to push technology forward, which is a wonderful thing — I love it — but it’s also about making toys for rich people. We wanted to do some stuff that would really have an impact in the developing world. The most dramatic intervention is we’ve built this machine that tracks mosquitoes in the sky and shoots them with lasers. Which sounds like a science-fiction fantasy. We thought it was, initially, but damn, we built the thing and it works.


Part of being an inventor is that you have to have a thick skin. There were people who were skeptical a few years ago who argued, “You’ll never build that laser thing,” but now they’re saying, “It won’t work in Africa, and at best you’ll put it around Disney World to kill the mosquitoes there.” Hey, that’s not so bad! If we can kill mosquitoes in volume with this thing, then I’ll count it as a partial victory.


If one out of 100 malaria ideas succeeds, I’m going to count that as a success, not as 99 failures. That’s the magic of ideas; that’s the magic of any kind of intellectual creation. The amount of intellectual effort required to write a poem or an article is totally out of proportion to the success of that poem or article. The success of great journalism is vastly out of proportion to the small effort of writing it. Meanwhile, you can work like crazy on something and have no impact. There’s nothing fair about it. But our job is to exploit the unfairness in one direction. A good idea can totally change the world.

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.