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Saved by an elephant


Unscheduled visit to a game reserve
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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But it was also an adventurous time. The science teacher was quite wonderful. She had a... She was married to an Indian and she had a tea estate up in Darjeeling. So she invited us to come to her tea estate in Darjeeling over the holidays. And so me... And I also had a friend, Bruce, who had been my friend in Baltimore, and we'd invited him out to come stay with us because I was lonely and I really liked Bruce. And so he came and stayed with us in Calcutta. And so Bruce and I went to visit Mrs Sinha up in Darjeeling which was like a multi-day train ride from Calcutta. But we would always go out and ride on the trains by ourselves, different parts of India. And so Bruce and I went and got on the train at Howrah Station to go up to Darjeeling. But then along the way there was something called a hartal, a general strike, and there were different... I don't remember what the politics were, but different branches of the communists were striking against each other and so they called a general strike and so everything stopped. So the trains stopped and... So we stopped in the middle of nowhere, in between Calcutta. For days. And of course the Indians on the train were very nice to us.

And we stopped near a game reserve which was a place that had tigers. And so we decided that since the train was stopped anyway we would go and see a tiger. So we went to the game reserve and we had our money and our passports and we were probably 14 or 15 years old, me and Bruce. And we got to the game reserve and found out that the way that you... The only way to get into the game reserve as to hire an elephant. So we hired an elephant and went tromping off into the game reserve on the back of an elephant.

And at some point the elephant got really frightened and we realised the elephant had somehow got tangled up with a giant python down there, and it's sort of jumping around and it managed to get away from the python. And we saw all kinds of different animals but we didn't see a tiger and we kept wanting to see a tiger. And the elephant driver took us out and we looked and he was armed with a rifle. And then it finally got... It was starting to get dark and we still hadn't seen a tiger and we were arguing with him to stay out a little longer, we wanted to see a tiger. And he was like, no, it's dangerous. And it was hard because we were sort of trying to talk Hindi. He didn't really speak English and he didn't speak Bengali which was... He spoke some other language. And finally he insisted that we go back in because it was getting dark. And so we went back to the village.

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: train trip, hartal, strike, tiger, game reserve, elephant, python

Duration: 3 minutes, 39 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017