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How a diplomat's wife saved a chicken dinner
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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A lot of times there were droughts or there were food shortages. It was very hard to get food. And for instance once you went to the market and you just got whatever you could, and once we were very excited because my mother found at the market a watermelon. And she came back with a watermelon, we were so excited that we were going to get to eat this watermelon. And we were just sitting around with our mouths watering, and she sliced open the watermelon, and we all suddenly realised that she'd just gotten this giant cucumber. But it was so disappointing.

But once we went to one of the consulates of one of the other... I think this... I don't remember which consulate it was. But they hosted us for a dinner at a time when it was very hard to get food. And somehow she had managed to get a chicken, which was a big deal. And so they came in to present the chicken before slicing it. Because it was like such a huge thing that they had gotten this chicken. And they brought in this chicken on this platter. And then on the way out the guy tripped or something and the chicken fell off and slid across the floor. And we were all just shocked because, you know, this was the great pièce de résistance of the meal. And there it was like lying on the floor. And the ambassador's wife said, in English, 'Oh, that's all right, we'll just have them go get the other chicken.' And then said something to them in the native language and they picked up the other chicken and they... And of course we all knew that there was no other chicken. But I remember as a child just thinking, 'Wow, now that's a diplomat's wife, right?' She knew exactly what to do in that situation, without skipping a beat. And we all sort of went forward with the fiction that this was the other chicken.

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: dinner, chicken, food, diplomacy

Duration: 2 minutes, 38 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017