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Living in rural Louisiana

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Pooh bear helps me discover my self-awareness
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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We had a very close family. When I was very young my father graduated medical school and went to Denmark to study virology. And so my brother and sister were actually born in Denmark. And I grew up actually speaking Danish. I spoke Danish to children, I spoke English to adults. In fact even apparently up when I came back to the United States I spoke Danish to children and English to adults. But if you ever listen to young children talk, they don't really listen to each other much, so it worked fine.

And so my brother and sister... My first memory was of the birth of my brother. And being... It was the first time I had been away from my mother. And she was in the hospital and I wasn't allowed to see her. And I sat with my teddy bear, I had a teddy bear Pooh, and I still remember in great detail... I remember sitting on a stairway in Denmark, we had a house that had two floors, and my brother was being born, must have been two-and-a half or something like that. And sitting there alone, probably for the first time I'd really been much time alone. And with Pooh. And I remember looking at Pooh and looking at Pooh's eyes and realising that Pooh was looking at me like I was looking at Pooh.

And this moment of sort of revelation that there were other people in the world, that each had their own point of view, and I was just one of them. If that makes any sense. That I was in the world. The world wasn't me but I was just something that was in the world. Just like Pooh was in the world. And being very... not frightened by it, but very surprised by it. I know that sounds like a strange thing to understand but that's my first memory, is understanding that. I'm understanding that Pooh had a different perspective on things than I did. And so that was probably an important moment in my intellectual development. It was important enough that I've always remembered it.

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: Denmark

Duration: 2 minutes, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017