Jim Gray and Jon Mathews

Computer scientist Jim Gray vanished in 2007 while sailing on the ocean. He came to mind again recently when a New York Times book review appeared of The Fourth Paradigm: Data-Intensive Scientific Discovery, a collection of essays in Gray's honor by his colleagues.

I only met Jim Gray briefly, a dozen or more years ago at a long-forgotten group project meeting. Of him I only recall his grizzled beard, his friendliness, his sensible remarks, and his habit of standing up to stride quietly around the room while others talked. He was suffering from back pain at the time, he explained, and this kept it under control.

Gray was a database expert who thought big, orders of magnitude larger than current information technology capabilities. His Turing Award lecture explores a dozen key research challenges. It includes part of a delightful list that Gray attributes to David Huffman, another famous CS researcher:

... charming thoughts, if a bit too CS-centric. I would correct it to say that Physics holds patents on space-time and mass-energy—but yes, I'm a physicist! (^_^)

Reading about and remembering Jim Gray brought to mind Jon Mathews, who also sadly was lost at sea during a 1979 sailing voyage around the world. I took a few classes from Mathews and admired him greatly. Perhaps over the years I've become more like him than I anticipated (or could have hoped). The thoughtful remarks by Robert Walker [1] sharpen the memories:

Jon was not like most of the other people on the physics faculty at Caltech in his motivations and his approach to science. He had great versatility — as do some of the others — but I think his most outstanding characteristic was that he was a scholar, and his scientific motivations stemmed from that. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer describes the various characters traveling together on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. Among them was a scholar, about whom he said:

A Clerk ther was of Oxenford also,
That un-to logik hadde longe y-go ....
Of studie took he most cure and most hede.
Noght o word spak he more than was nede,
And that was seyd in forme and reverence,
And short and quik, and ful of hy sentence,
Souninge in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he Ierne, and gladly teche.

I think the last line describes Jon particularly well. What really interested him was learning a new subject, which he did with great intensity and remarkable intellectual power, but he was never so involved with his own long-range research that he was unwilling to be diverted and give attention to a new problem — provided you could get him interested. Then he would be of great help.

A scholar: learning and helping others. Another way in which Jim Gray resembled Jon Mathews. I'd like to be more like that ...

^z - 2009-12-21