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Saying 'left' instead of 'right' in a nuclear submarine

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Emergency breach manoeuvre in a nuclear submarine
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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One of the fun things about working with the government, even though there are some unfun things about it, is you get to ride around in lots of interesting vehicles, and so at one point, I got to go out for a few days in a nuclear submarine. And an admiral had basically... the admiral arranged to come with me was the head of the Pacific Fleet, and he was the commander of the Pacific Fleet. But of course he's not the Captain of the submarine. The Captain of the submarine is yet another thing. So the Captain really gets to decide what goes on on the ship, but of course he listens a lot to what the Admiral wants.

So I was the guest of the Admiral, and so one of the strangest things was that we were completely out of contact, because there's not communication when you're under the ocean. And it was a little hard for me, because I'm a bit claustrophobic and there's not a lot of room. And the captain was very kind to give me his headquarters, but even that I could barely fit into. I would have been much happier out sleeping on the torpedoes with the enlisted men, but everyone on a submarine is incredibly polite. They're very easy to get along with, but it's very close quarters. Everyone knows everyone and everyone was very aware we were on the ship. And so the Admiral mentioned that every submarine once a year gets to do something called an emergency breach manoeuvre, which is where they blow the tanks and they shoot up out of the water and bounce. And of course you have no windows on a submarine, so it's all just how it feels, which mostly is nothing. It's all very silent. It's nuclear reactors turning electric motors, so it's the quietest, most isolated environment you can imagine. But... so it gets a little boring. So submariners read a lot and play chess and things like that, but...

So I think the Admiral wanted something exciting to happen, so he mentioned in front of the Captain that every year every submarine does this once. And so the Captain said, 'Well, actually, we could do it right now.' And so we did an emergency breach manoeuvre. But the interesting thing is it amazed me how much trouble they went to to make sure nobody was up above. So first of all they used sonar to listen for ship engines in the area. We're out in the middle of the ocean. And no ships in the area. But then they went up to periscope depth and looked around and physically looked before they dived down. And then they shot up. And that was very exciting, because everything slants up and you feel yourself rushing upwards, and you feel yourself actually popping up above the water like a whale. Of course, you don't see anything, and this is all kinaesthetically you feel it. So it was very exciting, but I thought it was a little silly how much work they went to to make sure it was empty. But then, two weeks later, there was another emergency ascent manoeuvre where they actually hit a boat. They skipped the visual step and they hit a boat that had its engines off. And so I don't think anybody else, any other civilians are going to be getting those tours any more, but it made me realise that a lot of this belt and suspender stuff that they do really makes sense, even though it's very counter-intuitive.

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: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

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: submarine, Pacific Fleet, emergency breach manoeuvre, ship

Duration: 4 minutes, 14 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017