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Getting to steer a nuclear submarine
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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We spent a few more days on the submarine and we were actually on the bridge, where they actually steer the submarine. And we're watching it and I mention to the Admiral that Al Gore once told me that the most fun he ever had as Vice President was actually getting to steer a nuclear submarine. And this is something the size of a 50-storey building lying flat. And it all works by total discipline of everybody doing exactly what they're supposed to do and they're all super-trained and they all follow orders instantly and it's kind of a big deal, because you have nuclear reactors when you do the throttle. So it's kind of amazing that they let Al Gore steer it, so I mentioned that. And the Admiral says, again in front of the Captain, he says, 'Well, I'm sure if the Captain wanted to, he could let you steer it.' And the Captain, of course, picks up this immediately and the Captain says, 'Helmsman, give the helm to Doctor Hillis.' And every other thing that the Captain has ever said, people are just like, 'Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir.' But the helmsman turns around and says: 'Sir?'

He's like, this is the guy that doesn't know right from left? He didn't say that. He just said, 'Sir?' And the captain said, 'You heard what I said, helmsman', and he gets out and I got to steer the nuclear submarine. And the cool thing is the throttle, because when you hit the throttle, it really feels like... I mean, you've got a hundred megawatts of nuclear reactor come online and it really feels like you surge forward. And it's pretty impressive. I mean, this thing the size of a skyscraper. So I got to steer the nuclear submarine. But then later, when I was in the reactor room, I discovered that when you pull the throttle it doesn't actually control the nuclear reactors, it just changes a dial in the room and then all the people who control the reactors turn them up and so on.

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: Al Gore

Duration: 2 minutes, 22 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017