Nathan Myhrvold met Jack Horner on the set of the “Jurassic Park” sequel in 1996. Horner is an eminent paleontologist, and was a consultant on the movie. Myhrvold was there because he really likes dinosaurs. Between takes, the two men got to talking, and Horner asked Myhrvold if he was interested in funding dinosaur expeditions.
Myhrvold is of Nordic extraction, and he looks every bit the bearded, fair-haired Viking—not so much the tall, ferocious kind who raped and pillaged as the impish, roly-poly kind who stayed home by the fjords trying to turn lead into gold. He is gregarious, enthusiastic, and nerdy on an epic scale. He graduated from high school at fourteen. He started Microsoft’s research division, leaving, in 1999, with hundreds of millions. He is obsessed with aperiodic tile patterns. (Imagine a floor tiled in a pattern that never repeats.) When Myhrvold built his own house, on the shores of Lake Washington, outside Seattle—a vast, silvery hypermodernist structure described by his wife as the place in the sci-fi movie where the aliens live—he embedded some sixty aperiodic patterns in the walls, floors, and ceilings. His front garden is planted entirely with vegetation from the Mesozoic era. (“If the ‘Jurassic Park’ thing happens,” he says, “this is where the dinosaurs will come to eat.”) One of the scholarly achievements he is proudest of is a paper he co-wrote proving that it was theoretically possible for sauropods—his favorite kind of dinosaur—to have snapped their tails back and forth faster than the speed of sound. How could he say no to the great Jack Horner?
“What you do on a dinosaur expedition is you hike and look at the ground,” Myhrvold explains. “You find bones sticking out of the dirt and, once you see something, you dig.” In Montana, which is prime dinosaur country, people had been hiking around and looking for bones for at least a hundred years. But Horner wanted to keep trying. So he and Myhrvold put together a number of teams, totalling as many as fifty people. They crossed the Fort Peck reservoir in boats, and began to explore the Montana badlands in earnest. They went out for weeks at a time, several times a year. They flew equipment in on helicopters. They mapped the full dinosaur ecology—bringing in specialists from other disciplines. And they found dinosaur bones by the truckload.
Once, a team member came across a bone sticking out from the bottom of a recently eroded cliff. It took Horner’s field crew three summers to dig it out, and when they broke the bone open a black, gooey substance trickled out—a discovery that led Myhrvold and his friend Lowell Wood on a twenty-minute digression at dinner one night about how, given enough goo and a sufficient number of chicken embryos, they could “make another one.”
There was also Myhrvold’s own find: a line of vertebrae, as big as apples, just lying on the ground in front of him. “It was seven years ago. It was a bunch of bones from a fairly rare dinosaur called a thescelosaurus. I said, ‘Oh, my God!’ I was walking with Jack and my son. Then Jack said, ‘Look, there’s a bone in the side of the hill.’ And we look at it, and it’s a piece of a jawbone with a tooth the size of a banana. It was a T. rex skull. There was nothing else it could possibly be.”
People weren’t finding dinosaur bones, and they assumed that it was because they were rare. But—and almost everything that Myhrvold has been up to during the past half decade follows from this fact—it was our fault. We didn’t look hard enough.
Myhrvold gave the skeleton to the Smithsonian. It’s called the N. rex. “Our expeditions have found more T. rex than anyone else in the world,” Myhrvold said. “From 1909 to 1999, the world found eighteen T. rex specimens. From 1999 until now, we’ve found nine more.” Myhrvold has the kind of laugh that scatters pigeons. “We have dominant T. rex market share.”