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My refusal to make the Pledge of Allegiance

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A terrible chemistry teacher
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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I also got into a lot of trouble with the chemistry teacher because I'd had this great chemistry teacher in India and I knew more chemistry than the chemistry teacher did. So I remember, on the first day of chemistry Mr Daniels, who was the terrible chemistry teacher, he was showing us that... doing experiments showing liquids can turn into solids and solids can turn into gasses and so on. And he had a white lab coat on and a little pair of round glasses. And we were standing around and he was doing these demonstrations, and we had for instance the Bunsen burner running to boil water and one of the things he did, to show that solids could turn into gasses is he put a bit of aluminium carbide into water and it started bubbling. And he said, 'So you see it's making CO2.' And I knew that that wasn't... That doesn't make CO2, that makes acetylene. That's how carbide lamps work. So he had a balloon on the top of the test tube and it was blowing up and he's explaining how this is making CO2. And I said, 'That's not CO2, that's acetylene.' Then he said, 'No, it's CO2.' I said, 'No, it's not, it's acetylene.' And I took the... I took the balloon and I stuck it over the Bunsen burner, it goes: kaboom. And what I hadn't countered for is that it burned all the rubber from the balloon and so Mr Daniels was like covered with soot from all this acetylene and rubber burning. And he takes off his... His glasses were covered with black soot. And he takes off his glasses and there's like these two little round holes where he's not covered with soot. And the whole class starts laughing. And he gave me a D in chemistry even though I knew way more chemistry than he did. I just did not get off to a very good start with him. So I was always kind of in a battle with the administration in high school.

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: chemistry, CO2, acetylene, explosion, soot, administration

Duration: 2 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017