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Steven Pinker’s Tribute to the ‘Low-Key Extravagance’ of Microsoft’s Paul Allen

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Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard. His most recent book is 'Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress'

Paul Allen’s nerdiness was deceptive. The Microsoft co-founder, who died at 65 on Oct. 15, could seem shy in person, but beneath the reticence he was voracious—for ideas, people, beauty, insight and opportunities to enhance the lives of others. Though he wore it lightly, his was a truly expansive intellect.

Not long after we met, Paul rented a cruise ship and invited the diverse people he’d worked with in his many walks of life on a junket to Alaska. There were scientists like me. There were actors and movie producers. There were athletes from the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers, teams he bought to keep them in his beloved Pacific Northwest. There were rock musicians who were involved in what was originally called the Experience Music Project, another Seattle institution he founded — or whom he simply wanted to jam with. Where else could you see a brilliant cancer geneticist, an NBA All-Star, and a pantheon of rock musicians whale-watching with Candice Bergen, Bill Gates, Debbie Reynolds and James Cameron?

When the first draft of the Human Genome Project was completed, Paul had what he described to me as an epiphany. The deepest scientific mystery of the 21st century, he realized, was how a one-dimensional string of DNA could give rise to a convoluted, trillion-synapse brain capable of creativity, cooperation, conflict, and the rest of human nature. He conceived the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and in another touch of low-key extravagance, summoned his yacht to the Bahamas and invited a dozen scientists to spend a weekend with him there to brainstorm.

Paul admitted that his sleek, helipad- and speedboat-equipped cruiser — “yacht” doesn’t do it justice — was a James Bond fantasy. And yet his indulgence in all that life had to offer was by no means just for fun. His philanthropic, commercial, scientific and artistic ventures expressed his double-sided personality: cerebral in conception, flamboyant in execution.

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