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My life list: Flying a helicopter

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My life list: Climbing the Great Pyramid
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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Everybody has a kind of bucket list or a life list of things they want to do, and long ago I actually wrote mine down, of things I wanted to do in life. And for instance, 'drive a nuclear submarine' was on it. A lot of them are very implausible. I'll probably never get to do them. Like 'fly into space' or... but some of them that seemed implausible, like 'learn to fly a helicopter', I would find an opportunity to do. And whenever I got an opportunity to do something on my life list, even if it was really inconvenient, I would go and do it.

And one of the crazy ones was I always wanted to climb to the top of the Great Pyramid at Giza, but that's completely illegal these days, because it's kind of dangerous. It's pretty hard to climb. The blocks are like a metre tall and it takes you, like, half a day to do it. And they used to let you do it, but people would fall off and roll down and kill themselves, so they stopped allowing people to do it, and it probably wasn't that good for the pyramid, either. But it was always on my life list to do. And I had a friend who was an archaeologist in Egypt, down by the Great Pyramids, that I went to visit. And when I was there, I was telling him about my clock project. And he said, 'Oh, you should tell this project to the head of Antiquities Department', because this was before the year 2000 and he's trying to do in the year 2000. So there was a guy by the name of Zahi Hawass, who sort of controlled all the antiquities in Egypt. And so I had dinner with him and I told him about my clock project, and he said, 'Oh, well, you should put your clock on the top of the Great Pyramid of Giza and we'll have a celebration in the year 2000. It will ring in.'

Of course, I thought this was a really terrible idea, but of course I immediately said, 'Well, I'll have to up there and inspect it to see if it's suitable.' So Zahi Hawass wrote me a handwritten note giving me special permission to climb the pyramid. So I went up with my friend Matthew McCawley and Mark Lerner, who had written a wonderful book about the pyramids, who was really probably the world's expert on the pyramids. And we had this special permission that we could climb the Pyramid of Giza.

So we got there early in the morning and started climbing up, and it's actually pretty difficult, because it's a very inconvenient height. You had to pull yourself up every stone and then up to the next level. The pyramids were originally built with a marble cover, but that was salvaged off and used to make mosques centuries ago. So you sort of have the bare stone blocks underneath, and it's really pretty high. So we spent all day climbing up and sometime in the middle of the morning, the Egyptian Army, who was very carefully guarding the pyramids, notices these people climbing it. And they come out with bullhorns and tell us we have to get down and wave weapons at us. And by then we had climbed up about a third of the way and it really seemed way too difficult to go back down and explain to them that we had permission, so we just kept climbing and they got angrier and angrier and they started bringing more and more troops around and they called in the other troops and they started, like, aiming artillery at us. And of course, we knew they weren't going to shoot at us while we're climbing the pyramids. But they had what seemed like a whole division down there waiting for us. So we climbed up to the top of the pyramids and there's actually an area of about 20 square feet on the top. If you look at the Giza pyramid, it's sort of flat, because some of the best rock was on the top, and so they salvaged it by rolling it down. So it's a flat area, which sure enough would be big enough to build a clock, but...

So we hung out there and it was quite windy and then we climbed back down and, of course, by the time we got down, this whole division was waiting for us and they immediately came with all their rifles, and they'd been watching us all day, just waiting for us to come down. And then they surrounded us and then we pulled out our handwritten note by Zahi Hawass and they read it and shrugged their shoulders and cleared the way and we walked off.

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: Giza, Zahi Hawass, Matthew McCawley, Mark Lerner

Duration: 5 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017