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Monday, February 5, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Missing scientist's contributions are legendary

Seattle Times staff columnist

When hikers get lost on snowy mountains in the Northwest, it's gripping because the drama happens in our backyard.

It may have seemed distant when Jim Gray vanished last week while sailing out of San Francisco, alone, on a sunny day trip to scatter his mother's ashes by the Farallon Islands.

But Gray's disappearance is more than a local story in the Bay Area or even here, in the hometown of Microsoft, which has employed Gray as a researcher since 1995.

Gray's work touches most everyone, everywhere. You're benefiting from his research whenever you use an ATM, transfer money electronically, search with Google or shop at Amazon.com.

Although he worked at a special lab Microsoft created to accommodate him in San Francisco, Gray was a pillar of the company's advanced research group.

Yet in some ways Gray's influence has been greater than Microsoft's.

I was trying to get my mind around this last week when I received an e-mail from my mother-in-law, asking how the search for Gray was going.

Turns out they grew up in the same neighborhood in Daly City, Calif., and her best friend stayed close to his family through the years. The friend's grandmother and Gray's grandmother met on a boat when they immigrated from Croatia.

The friend didn't want to be quoted, but she told me a lot about Jimmy.

In that working-class neighborhood on San Francisco's south side, everyone knew back then that Jimmy was really smart, like his mother, the teacher. They also knew he had an independent streak, and that his smarts earned scholarships that put him through the University of California, Berkeley.

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As children, they'd go to Yosemite and Jimmy would hike off by himself and come back after he'd seen a bear. They'd go swimming at Santa Cruz, and he'd be the one to swim way out past the breakwater.

Later, the friend didn't see Gray as much as she saw his mother, in part because he was always away teaching or picking up an honorary degree in places like Germany or Japan.

Gray became a grandfather not long ago, and he had made sure that his mother had top-quality care before she died last fall.

That same picture, of a brilliant, compassionate maverick, was painted by friends such as Werner Vogels, the chief technology officer at Amazon.com.

Gray was on the university committee in Amsterdam that reviewed Vogels' doctorate work, and they've been close ever since.

He mentored a number of the top people at Amazon.com and other companies, not to mention legions of professors.

That's why Microsoft wasn't the only company to pour energy into the search for Gray last week. Amazon.com, Google and others pitched in to search for signs of Gray's red, 40-foot fiberglass boat, "Tenacious."

"It might not be visible to the outside world much at the moment, but the whole academic and industry community has been mobilized," Vogels said Thursday.

"We have airplanes out doing private searches, we have satellite data being pulled in ... there's a lot of activities going on at the moment where you will see the top guys in many companies are contributing."

Why?

"Everybody realizes that somewhere along the way they became big, Jim's played a role in steering them the right direction."

Rick Rashid, head of Microsoft's research group, got to know Gray when they taught a summer course on distributed systems at Stanford University.

When Rashid had a chance to hire Gray in the 1990s he "jumped on it, even though it meant that I also had to open a new lab in San Francisco to accommodate his desire to stay there," he said.

"Jim Gray is not only one of the most influential scientists in the world, he is also the kind of person you would want your children to grow up to be," Rashid said.

Gray's "willingness to give of himself, educate, mentor, support others, solve the hard problems people bring to him and reach out to make the world better make him one of the field's most loved individuals," Rashid said.

"Many of the technologies people take for granted today — databases, ATM machines, reservation systems — were profoundly influenced by Jim's work. Everything Jim touches he changes for the better."

Recently Gray's focus was on science where he was working on new analytical tools and ways to share research data online. "He is making a difference in areas as diverse as oceanography, astronomy, medicine and environmental science," Rashid said.

Before Microsoft, Jim worked at Tandem Computers, Digital Equipment and IBM, while teaching at universities around the world.

A highlight of his career was receiving the A.M. Turing Award, the industry's equivalent of the Nobel Prize, for "seminal contributions to database and transaction-processing research and technical leadership in system implementation from research prototypes to commercial products."

What does Gray's transaction-processing research means to the average person?

"Any transaction from a bank, any transaction with an ATM machine, anything where you want to make sure money you deposit in the bank actually arrives there — all the technology around there has been developed by Jim or based on the principals that Jim has developed," Vogels said.

"It doesn't just go for banks. It's a pattern that has repeated in many other places — if you want to make sure some information is stored reliably and can be updated reliably, that is all technology that has come out of the mind of Jim Gray."

But that's not all.

"It's not just that he developed one particular thing, he developed a large body of work that influenced a complete industry," Vogels said. "It's not like someone else wouldn't have developed it over time, but he was clearly the thought leader on which we have massively successful companies such as Oracle these days."

Vogels said Gray was capable of "out-of-the-box thinking in ways many of us can't. If you take a particular problem to him he would be able to turn it 180 degrees around and look at it very differently, often steering people in a different direction and [to] fundamentally better solutions.

"He was — or, is, let's keep it is — he's a bit of a maverick," Vogels continued. "He likes to kick the tires of the industry and of common perceptions about how things are done. That attitude has driven a lot of other innovation where people really started thinking differently."

My mother-in-law's friend asked not to be quoted, and I don't want to get booted from the family circle. But a comment she made sums it up:

"He's changed the world literally, hasn't he?"

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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