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People who influenced my generation of scientists

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How Edward Teller was set up
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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Teller was a really interesting character. I was very good friends, actually, with Nick Metropolis, who was the one that invented the Metropolis Algorithm. And I had, because of this encounter with Teller, I had sort of a negative feeling about Teller, not to mention the fact that, you know, he had pushed the hydrogen bomb, and I had real mixed feelings about him. But Freeman said something nice about Teller, he said, 'He was really a sweet person.' And Nick Metropolis tried to tell me Teller was a sweet person. So Nick Metropolis took me out to dinner with Teller once, when he was visiting Los Alamos, and I was, and we got a nice conversation and I came to see the kind side of Teller. He genuinely had a problem with the communists and on that one subject, he was very, very unreasonable, I thought. But in many other ways, he was very reasonable and very kind. And he told me a very interesting story, actually, which I'd never heard, because I asked him, because I'd read about the Oppenheimer Affair and things like that, and I said, well, you know, well didn't... because I wanted to kind of confront him about the things that I didn't like about him and I'd heard that he'd sort of tubed Oppenheimer's security clearance. And he said, 'Yes, that's a story I will never tell publicly, but I was set up.' I was like, 'Well, what do you mean?' And so he said: he was going into the Oppenheimer security clearance to actually testify for Oppenheimer, even though he disagreed with Oppenheimer a lot, he didn't think Oppenheimer was a traitor, a security risk. And he said just before he went in, the lawyer came to him and said, 'Before you testify, I think you should be aware of some information that you probably aren't aware of.' And he showed him some stories that they had collected about Oppenheimer switching his story on... I forget what it was, but something that came out in the... but it was all new information to Teller, just before he walked into the hearing. And the guy implied that they knew that Oppenheimer was a spy and that it would be really bad if he testified in his favour. And Teller was just processing... he'd just heard this information, so when he got there, he kind of hedged. He was like, 'Well, I don't really know', because what he really meant was, obviously there's information here that I don't know about, but it came across as very negative for Oppenheimer. And then people thought that he had deliberately sabotaged Oppenheimer's security clearance, but actually he was just caught off guard by this other thing. But he never came out publicly and said any of that. And so he was kind of vilified for that, he felt unjustly, but he also... his sense of honour or whatever was such that he never defended himself publicly on 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: Edward Teller, Nicholas Metropolis, Robert Oppenheimer

Duration: 3 minutes, 29 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017