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The book that influenced my application to MIT

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Mrs Wilner, our remarkable librarian
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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But I also had the best teacher, I think. Well, I had a lot of good teachers, but one of the wonderful teachers I had was the librarian at that same school, Lida Lee Tall. And I would go into the library and she... I would always ask for books on rocks because I loved collecting rocks. And, but she would bring me other books. So she brought me my first book on electricity for example. And she brought me my first science fiction book which was a book called, The Wonderful Trip to the Mushroom Planet. And so she introduced me to two great loves of my life.

And later when I was... Years and years later when I was at MIT I started thinking about how important she had been to me and I decided to go back and see if she was still there. And I was like, you know, this was from fourth grade to MIT. So it was certainly more than a decade. Then I went back by the school, I went back by the library, and I walked in. And Mrs Wilner looked up and said, 'Hello, Danny.' Kind of amazing. That's how well she knew... And she had had so many hundreds of students since then. And I thanked her for all of that.

And then actually years later, Time Magazine was doing something on education and they interviewed me. And I told this story about how Mrs Wilner had introduced me to electricity and I said, you know, 'If you tell the story, would you use her name?' And Time Magazine did tell the story and they did use her name. And I thought, I wonder if she still... You know, could be in contact. And so I looked up on the internet and I found a story of a church she had been to, a church newsletter that said she'd moved to a certain town. And I looked up the town and there were only three people named Wilner. Of course I didn't know her first name. But there was an Isabelle Wilner and so I called. And the first one I got, I said, 'Excuse me, but did you used to be a librarian at Lida Lee Tall Elementary School?' And she said, 'Yes, I did.' And I said, 'Well, I just, you know, I was calling you up because I wanted to tell you, you know, how much it had meant to me.' And she said, 'Well, of course I remember you.' And she said, 'But not only that, but you know, you mentioned my name in that article and lots of people have been calling me. And it's really, you know, makes me realise I was appreciated.'

And indeed, it turns out, you know, she had that effect on a lot of other people's lives and I later, you know, heard from other people that, you know, she was a student that really got to... She was a teacher who really got to know each student individually and treat them individually and cared about them. And you know, she was remarkable and really make a positive contribution. As did many other people. There were, you know, lots of science teachers I had who were just fantastic and encouraging and, you know, there were some who were threatened, like Mr Daniels. But there were others that I had in junior high school that were just incredibly supportive and, you know, let me go as far as I wanted and really tried to help me in every way they could.

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: Time Magazine, Isabelle Wilner

Duration: 4 minutes, 3 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017