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A trial in the village

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Landing 'mixmaster blong jesus' in Kanganaman
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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Eventually we gave up on the maps because our GPS system would show us like going across dry land and obviously the river had moved since the maps... And as we were talking about Kanganaman, it was like, I think I've heard of this. And I realised after a while, this is the village where Margaret Mead and Gregory Baitson met. And I knew their daughter, Catherine Baitson. And of course Gregory Baitson is the one that had told the story about New College Oxford which was so important for me, and the clock. So I felt a real sense of connection to them. And this was the village where they had met and eventually fallen in love. They didn't get together... They didn't like each other very much at first but they eventually fell in love.

It was a little village, a couple of hundred people. So we arrived at the village, but we had so much trouble going up the Sepik that eventually we had to abandon our boat but we managed to radio back and find an oil company that had a helicopter that they were willing to rent to us. So we got the helicopter, flew the helicopter into the village.

And you know, they had had runners... The river runs around so much that people can actually travel fast... News can travel faster than a boat can. And so they knew we were coming. Just by relaying, you know, word of mouth. And so they'd cleared off the area, but the area that they'd cleared for us to land wasn't quite big enough to land, and so we had an Aussie helicopter pilot, I used to fly helicopters so I knew this wasn't big enough to land but he went down into it really fast. And he was that far from one of the trees, of hitting it. So I realised he couldn't take off. Or at least not fully loaded. We landed, it was a big deal. And they knew we were coming so they had these puppets to greet us and so they dressed up in costume and then children came around the helicopter. And everybody was very excited of having helicopter land, that's a big deal. In fact, in the Pidgin language they call helicopters... So they use the word 'blong' or 'blong' to be apostrophe s as the possessive. So helicopters are called 'mixmaster blong jesus'. That's the... So the 'mixmaster blong jesus' landed.

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: Papua New Guinea, Margaret Mead, Gregory Baitson, Catherine Baitson

Duration: 3 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017