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Getting to steer a nuclear submarine

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Saying 'left' instead of 'right' in a nuclear submarine
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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Another thing they did, and it turns out I was early on it, was they do something... they're always doing drills of various sorts, and one of the kinds of drills they do when they're up above surface, is they do a man overboard drill. So you're up on the sail, which is the tower, and somebody's supposed to keep watch, and if somebody falls overboard, that person gets on the speaker and says to the whole ship: 'Man overboard.' And if it's on the right side, they say, 'Man overboard, starboard side, all ahead right', so that you can turn around and get them. And so there's somebody constantly watching whenever you're up above for somebody man overboard. So they decided to let me do the man overboard duty. And because they do drills, they throw dummies overboard, and so I knew they were going to do a drill while I was watching. So I'm thinking, 'Okay, I just have to remember: starboard is on the right. Okay. Starboard, port, starboard, port.' I'm going, 'That's all I have to get right. But I have to get this right, because everybody on the submarine, who I'm going to be with for days, is going to hear this, right?' So I'm watching and then sure enough, they throw the dummy overboard on the right side. So I say, 'Man overboard, starboard side, all ahead left. I mean right.' And of course the whole ship does this, and there are people that are... and there's like a hesitation, the ship starts to go to the left and then right and then left and then we lost the dummy. So they drowned. So everybody on the ship knows that I've, like, blown this. But of course everybody's incredibly polite, so nobody says anything, and everybody just pretends like this didn't happen. Submariners are just so polite. But this is sort of looming over me. I'm sure that when I walk down the hall, everybody's looking at me as the guy that said left instead of right.

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: drill, submarine, man overboard, dummy

Duration: 2 minutes, 17 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017