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Doubting the things I heard from adults
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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[Q] Was there a point somewhere along the way that it occurred to you, you were probably much cleverer than most other people?

Well, I would say that maybe the most important thing I learnt in school was that an awful lot of adults actually didn't know what they were talking about. And it took me... It took a while to dawn on me. Actually, I mostly... I learnt that in church for instance. Because my parents were very religious and I always went to Sunday School. They were Southern Baptist. And the... I remember once... Well certainly I knew that they kind of evaded certain questions. Like we had to learn the ten commandments. And of course I asked, 'What's adultery?' And they looked sort of embarrassed and they said, 'Well, that's coveting your neighbour's wife.' And I'm like, 'No, it's not, that's covered up here in commandment number three' or whatever, they wouldn't have... You know? So I knew there was a bit of shuffling going on.

But there was a big moment for me when in the Southern Baptist that I grew up with believe that alcohol was evil. And they were tee-totalers. And we were taught that in Sunday School. And one day I asked, 'If alcohol is so bad, why did Jesus turn the water into wine?' And they looked a little confused and they said, 'Well, wine wasn't really alcoholic in those days.' And I was like, 'No, that's ridiculous. It says that the guests at the wedding were drunk and this wine was even better than the other wine, you know? Of course it was alcoholic. And then they were getting drunk.' And then they sort of hemmed and hawed around.

But what shocked me wasn't that they were sort of evading the question because I was kind of used to that from the ten commandments thing, but what really shocked me was I realised they had never even asked the question before. And when I realised that I started realising, you know, they haven't really thought this through that much. They really haven't thought about things that much. So that was for me a moment where I think I started doubting the things I heard from adults.

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: church, adult, religion, questions, doubts, commandments, faith

Duration: 2 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017