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Former Microsoft CTO Uses Mathematica to Explore the Science of Modernist Cuisine

Ever wondered how to grill the perfect steak? Or how well dunking food into an ice bath stops the cooking process? Nathan Myhrvold used Mathematica to answer these questions, and many others.

Myhrvold, the first chief technology officer at Microsoft, has had a longtime interest in cooking and has a background in science and technology. When he started using new techniques like sous vide, in which food is slowly cooked in vacuum-sealed bags in water at low temperature, he discovered that many chefs don’t know much about the science behind cooking. He decided to change that with a massive cookbook that was released in March. In 2,438 pages, Modernist Cuisine covers a wide range of cooking techniques and their scientific backgrounds, including heat transfer and the growth of pathogens. (It has recipes, too.)

In this audio recording, Myhrvold talks about the thousands of lines of Mathematica code he wrote to model the technical subjects underlying cooking and to create new kinds of visualizations to convey his results.

Much of his Mathematica work focused on heat transfer, which he modeled during grilling and other cooking procedures.

When you use a barbecue grill, as you move food farther from the coals, the heat gets less intense. Myhrvold used Mathematica to make a graph of how the heat falls off with the height of the food. The heat of a grill also varies from side to side, and that unevenness is reflected in the plot.

“If I had wanted a canned picture that was the kind of chart everyone had always made before, I could have used lots of software,” Myhrvold said. “I was trying to figure out how to create a graph. I didn’t really know what I wanted. I just knew I wanted to show this thing and it had a couple of interesting aspects to it, and I figured out a way to do it in Mathematica.”

While conducting experiments for the book, Myhrvold discovered some surprising things with Mathematica. For example, his team ran simulations of what happens when hot food is put into an ice bath, and found that it didn’t stop cooking any faster than food simply taken off the stove.

Myhrvold, the CEO of invention firm Intellectual Ventures, holds degrees in several areas of math and physics. He has also worked at a top French restaurant in Seattle and competed on a winning team at the World Championship of Barbecue. He is a longtime user of Mathematica and designed his entire house with it, including an elliptical staircase and aperiodic tile patterns.

You can find more about how Myhrvold and others use Mathematica on our Customer Stories pages.