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.

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