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Feeling rich as a student


'In times of national emergency, real or imagined'
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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So when it came time to get my Hertz fellowship, they sent me a document to sign which was all very reasonable except for one part. So the reasonable parts were things like: I'd put my name on papers. I'd put Hertz Foundation's name on papers that I wrote. But it had this sentence which I still remember exactly, which is: 'In times of national emergency, real or imagined, I will make available my skills and services to the United States Government.' I thought, that's really silly. Just because somebody imagines something, I'm not going to do that. So I crossed out real or imagined and I signed the document, and I wrote a cover letter saying, 'I just took out the imagined part', but I signed it and I sent it back to them.

And they sent me back a letter that said, 'No, you have to sign it unmodified.' And I sent them back a letter saying, 'Well, I'm not going to sign it unmodified. That's ridiculous.' So I get a call from the president of the foundation. He said, 'I'm sorry, but this is the rules. You know, we can't give you the fellowship unless you sign this.' I said, 'But it's ridiculous.' He says, 'Well, I know it's ridiculous, but that's just the way we do things.' And I'm, like, 'Well, I'm not going to do it.' He said, 'Well, if you don't do it, you don't get the fellowship.' And I was, like, 'Okay, well, that's up to you, but I'm not going to sign something that says, I'm going to do something just because somebody imagines something.'

So then I get back an official notice from them saying, 'You will not get it if you do not sign it.' Which they had already kind of sent me. And so I just ignored it. I didn't send anything. And then, after a while, I get this call that says, 'You know, the board has met on this and they confirm that you cannot get the fellowship if you don't sign this.' And so I called them up and said, 'Well, yes, you made that very clear before, but I'm not going to sign it.' So then I get a call from this guy with a deep Hungarian accent, who is Edward Teller himself. And he spent an hour on the phone with me trying to convince me to sign this thing. And he was, like, 'You don't understand the communists like I understand the communists.' He says, you know, 'If they had your mother hostage, you would think different about that.' And I said, 'If they had my mother hostage, that would be a real emergency, it wouldn't be an imagined emergency.' That's not what we're talking about. And I was like, one of the... I said, you know, 'I'm very patriotic, but part of what I like about this country is you don't have to do things just because somebody imagines something.' And so he argued back and forth with me and I thought I sort of won the argument with him, but then I got the president of the... called me up and said, 'No, Dr Teller has spoken and he confirms that you cannot have the fellowship unless you sign it.' And so I said, 'Okay, well, that's up to you guys.' He said, 'No, this is really the last time', you know. And I was like, 'Yes, I get it. You've made that very clear.'

So I went and I applied for... by then I couldn't get an NSF fellowship, so I got a teaching assistantship, which paid, like, half as much, and I actually had to do real work for it and... but it paid my tuition.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes George Dyson

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Hertz Foundation, Edward Teller

Duration: 3 minutes, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017