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Walking to school through the jungle

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My painful first experience with politics
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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When the new election came along, I was in... We had moved to Louisiana in preparation for going to Africa. And there was an election, and in Louisiana segregation was a big issue. So I went... I would ride in a school bus in St. Tammany Parish for a long ride, I would go past the black school to the white school. And my parents explained to me that that was wrong but that wasn't the general opinion in St. Tammany Parish. It was probably illegal even then.

And so before the election they called us all into the auditorium and they said, 'We just want you to go home and tell your parents what the election is about because if Johnson gets elected then the Negros are going to come to our school. But if Goldwater gets elected they won't.' And then just to make sure we got the message they said, 'So, how many of you are going to tell your parents to go and vote for Goldwater?' And almost everybody raised their hand. And then they said, 'How many of you are going to tell your parents to vote for Johnson?' And I raised my hand, and this little mentally retarded boy Johnny who did everything I did, he raised his hand. And we were the only ones.

And then after they let out, there was recess, and the kids took us behind the school by the garbage container and beat both of us up. I didn't realise I was doing anything brave when I raised my hand but... So that was my first experience with politics. And I was very surprised by it and I think Johnny was too. So... But it made me even more determined about my position at that point.

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: Barry Goldwater, Lyndon B Johnson

Duration: 2 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017