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Making a surprising mathematical discovery

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140 units of courses in one semester
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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When I came to MIT everybody was so smart. And they knew so much. And I think all of us who showed up were suddenly around people that were really smart and knew much more, much smarter people than we'd ever been. But it took me a while to realise actually that a lot of the things that were... Seemed to be very hard for some of the other students didn't seem so hard. In fact, I had this funny thing because I went to... I went to work for Marvin Minsky very early on which is another story. But I'm in this environment where everybody's showing up, being very paranoid about everybody else being smarter than they are, and so that's the sort of background for this story. But I spent my first couple of years working in Seymour Papert's lab and Marvin Minsky's lab. And so I didn't really take the courses you were supposed to take. And at that time they let you, you know, plan your own courses, and there weren't many rules about what courses you had to take other than you had to take a certain number... A certain set of courses in order to graduate. And by the time I got to my junior year I realised I was not on the course to graduate. I hadn't taken nearly enough courses. I hadn't taken some of the basic introductory courses.

And so I decided to take one semester and catch up from my two years of not taking courses and just concentrate on that. And so I signed up for every course I was supposed to have taken. Which there was no way to even attend all the classes. But by then I'd been in the culture enough and I had learnt enough. I mean, it wasn't like I wasn't learning anything. I'd really been learning the stuff even though I hadn't been taking the courses. So it was for me, a lot of it was kind of review material and lots of things.

But so everybody knew that I had signed up for 140 units of courses which each unit is supposed to be an hour a week, right? So... of work. So there was no way I could do this if it really was that. But there was at that time no rule against it. So I signed up for it and I ran around and took all these courses. And the hard part was scheduling all the final exams because, you know, just being at the final I had to move when I took certain finals.

And after this entire semester of totally concentrating on this and so on, people watching to see if I would survive, the last course I had to take was actually the vector calculus course which I should have taken in my freshman year. And the course was such that you could do quizzes along the way. And if you had done well on the quizzes then you were sort of guaranteed a B in the course, no matter what you did on the final exam. And I knew this and I had done well on the quizzes. Not because I was so good at vector calculus but because I was really good at figuring out other ways of solving the problems. But you could usually figure out a geometric way to solve the problem or something like that. But I... So I got to this exam and because it's an exam that everybody has to take it was held in the gymnasium. And it's one of these situations where there's tables laid out so that people aren't sitting next to each other and pencils and everybody turns over their page at once and it's a giant course that everybody's in. So everybody shows up. We turn over our exam, and this is my last exam at the end of this very burn-out semester of taking courses. And I'm just sick of it by then. I'm just so tired of it. I look at the first problem and it's some horrible triple integral... And I just... I can't even look at it. And I just sort of turned to look at the next. And the next one is like something that involves cosec and sins and tangents... This is horrible. And I just paged through it to look for like an easy problem to start on. I page through and there's like 20 problems and they just all look horrible. So I just think, you know what, I don't care. It doesn't matter if I get an A or a B, I'm just tired of this. And about five minutes pass as I think. So I go up and I just take my exam book and I hand it in. And everybody looks up and they all go [woooh]... And they're all convinced that I've just like aced it, solved all the problems. That gives you an idea of the sort of paranoia everybody had about how much smarter everybody else was. So I got a kind of undeserved reputation from that.

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: Massachussets Intitute of Technology

Duration: 5 minutes, 56 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017