Remember that bizarre episode in Freakonomics 2, where Levitt and Dubner went to the Batcave-like lair of a genius billionaire who told them that “the problem with solar panels is that they’re black.” I’m not the only one who wondered at the time: of all the issues to bring up about solar power, why that one?
Well, I think I’ve found the answer in this article by John Lanchester:
In 2004, Nathan Myhrvold, who had, five years earlier, at the advanced age of forty, retired from his job as Microsoft’s chief technology officer, began to contribute to the culinary discussion board egullet.org . . . At the time he grew interested in sous vide, there was no book in English on the subject, and he resolved to write one. . . . broadened it further to include information about the basic physics of heating processes, then to include the physics and chemistry of traditional cooking techniques, and then to include the science and practical application of the highly inventive new techniques that are used in advanced contemporary restaurant food–the sort of cooking that Myhrvold calls “modernist.”
OK, fine. But what does this have to do with solar panels? Just wait:
Notwithstanding its title, “Modernist Cuisine” contains hundreds of pages of original, firsthand, surprising information about traditional cooking. Some of the physics is quite basic: it had never occurred to me that the reason many foods go from uncooked to burned at such speed is that light-colored foods reflect heat better than dark: “As browning reactions begin, the darkening surface rapidly soaks up more and more of the heat rays. The increase in temperature accelerates dramatically.”
Aha! Now, I’m just guessing here, but my conjecture is that after studying this albedo effect in the kitchen, Myhrvold was primed to see it everywhere. Of course, maybe it went the other way: he was thinking about solar panels first and then applied his ideas to the kitchen. But, given that the experts seem to think the albedo effect is a red herring (so to speak) regarding solar panels, I wouldn’t be surprised if Myhrvold just started talking about reflectivity because it was on his mind from the cooking project. My own research ideas often leak from one project to another, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this happens to others too.