A Tribute to Jim Gray
Computer science attracts many very smart people, but a few stand out above the others, somehow blessed with a kind of creativity that most of us are denied. Names such as
Alan Turing, Edsger Dijkstra, and John Backus come to mind. Jim Gray is another.
Jim was a giant in computer science, and yet curiously unassuming in person. He
would sit quietly at our ACM Queue editorial board meetings, feeling no need to domi-
nate the conversation. When he did speak up, however, everyone in the room would
shut up and listen (a difficult feat with that group!), because we all knew that anything
Jim had to say would be relevant and interesting. He was also one of the most active
board members between meetings, despite being one of those with the most demands
on his time. He bore those demands well and with grace. When you talked with Jim on
the phone, you could tell that he wasn’t reading his e-mail or cleaning up his desk—he
was entirely with you—and he never seemed to be in a rush.
I first met Jim when I was an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley working on the then-new field of relational database management systems. Jim (who received the first Ph.D.
in computer science ever granted at Berkeley) was working at IBM Research on a competing project, yet he quickly became one of my first mentors. He seemed particularly to
enjoy working with bright young people, including, of course, many students. Passing
on information was his great passion.
One of Jim’s last projects was the Sloane Digital Sky Survey ( http://sdss.org). Bill
Gates was said to have asked Jim why he wanted to work on a project that had no possible profit motive, to which Jim responded, “Precisely, that’s the point.” He wanted to
do the best work he could and share it with as many people as possible, and he knew
that once money got involved, everything would change. To him, the draw of the sky
survey was that it gave him a chance to work with the largest database available that
consisted entirely of public data, and he could share everything he created. And besides,
it was cool.
Perhaps what I found most impressive about Jim was his ability to say things with
a profound clarity. He had a knack for studying contentious issues and then publishing the definitive paper that made the solution clear to everyone. His analyses were so
simple, so succinct, and so obviously correct that the debate was over, allowing the field
to move on to the next big challenge, which Jim would, of course, be watching carefully.