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This citizen scientist keeps calling out the pros

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Gabriel Spitzer
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KNKX
Nathan Myhrvold, CEO of Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue.

The plan for Nathan Myhrvold was to go into academia. He had his Ph.D in physics, and had even done some work with Stephen Hawking.But then he got pulled into this side project. The project turned into a company, the company got acquired by a little Redmond concern called Microsoft, and before long Nathan became the company’s Chief Technology Officer.

But Myhrvold kept his passion for science … and while he was at Microsoft -- in his abundant free time --- he started writing papers about dinosaurs.

Everybody loves dinosaurs when they are a kid. And professional paleontologists are just people who never lost that. So don’t ask me why I’m interested. It’s like 'what happened to you?'" Myhrvold said.

At the Bellevue headquarters of his current company, Intellectual Ventures, Myhrvold's office is littered with dinosaur fossils and space rocks. He wears jeans and a t-shirt that says Pizza is Beautiful.

He may not be a professional scientist, but he’s got a track record of confronting the pros when he finds flaws in their work. That began in 2013, with that dinosaur work. Myhrvold picked a fight with an established researcher over what Myhrvold characterized as sloppy work and some outright misconduct.

Years later, Myhrvold found himself in a similar situation, this time concerning not dinosaurs, but asteroids. A NASA team called NEOWISE was working on a huge project to catalog the size of thousands of nearby asteroids. Myhrvold spotted what he says in an error.

One of those proposed projects had made a colassal error in their physics. They had forgotten about Kirchhoff's Law.," he said.

As he dug deeper, he found more things that troubled him. After many months of raising a ruckus, and being largely dismissed as an upstart, Myhrvold got his critique published in a respected, peer-reviewed journal. He began to get more mainstream attention -- but not from the NEOWISE team, he says. Instead, Myhrvold claims they simply stopped returning his calls.

In a written statement, the NASA team disputed several of Myhrvold’s claims about their asteroid research. They say they used a widely accepted model that got similar results to the one Nathan favors. And they reject the idea that they froze him out, noting they responded to “dozens of requests for information over a year.”

Myhrvold, for his part, says he doesn't go looking for these fights.

"I certainly dont look for examples in science where this occurs, but I'm also not going to look the other way," he said.

Gabriel Spitzer is the Host and Senior Producer of Sound Effect, KNKX's "weekly tour of ideas inspired by the place we live." Gabriel was previously KNKX's Science and Health Reporter. He joined KNKX after years covering science, health and the environment at WBEZ in Chicago. There, he created the award-winning mini-show, Clever Apes. Having also lived in Alaska and California, Gabriel feels he’s been closing in on Seattle for some time, and has finally landed on the bullseye.