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Computer Scientist Lost at Sea Has Powerful Legacy
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Computer Scientist Lost at Sea Has Powerful Legacy


Computer Scientist Lost at Sea Has Powerful Legacy

Computer Scientist Lost at Sea Has Powerful Legacy
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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Microsoft computer scientist Jim Gray, 63, is missing and feared dead at sea. His revolutionary work with databases will continue to affect our lives each day. University of Washington computer science professor Ed Lazowska tells Rebecca Roberts about Gray's legacy.


The Coast Guard has called off the search for Jim Gray, a computer scientist who set sail from San Francisco last Sunday and hasn't been heard from since. But picking up where the Coast Guard left off is a small army of computer engineers using their expertise to try to predict and map where Jim Gray might have gone. Techies at Google are searching through satellite images from Google Earth. The folks at are adapting their Web site software to sift through aerial photographs of the Pacific Ocean.

This goes beyond just helping out a colleague. Google Earth and and hundreds of other companies are able to function because of technology Jim Gray developed. Ed Lazowska holds the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington. He's also a friend and collaborator of Jim Gray. And he joins us from member station KUOW in Seattle.

Ed Lazowska, welcome to the program.

Professor ED LAZOWSKA (University of Washington): It's good to be here. Thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: So what do all these companies owe to Jim Gray?

Prof. LAZOWSKA: Well, Jim is the number one person in the world in database systems, or transacting processing systems. And you use database and transaction processing systems hundreds of times a day, when you go to your bank's ATM, when you browse or buy something there, when you checkout at the supermarket. Jim's work really underlies all of these systems in a very fundamental way.

ROBERTS: And explain to me how that works. What is a transaction?

Prof. LAZOWSKA: Well, let's suppose you're making an online payment, suppose you're trying to move money from your bank account to the phone company. A lot of complicated stuff takes place behind the curtain, and here's some things you'd like to be assured of. You'd like to know that either the entire transaction takes place or none of it takes place. For example, either the money stays in your bank account or it gets to the phone company - all or nothing. You'd like to be sure that once the transaction has taken place, the results are permanent. The results will survive a system crash, for example.

And you'd like to be sure that simultaneous transactions don't interfere with one another. So if you and your spouse are in different rooms in the house simultaneously paying bills from the same bank account, you'd like to be sure that the result comes out right, rather than some jumble because you were accessing the same bank account simultaneously.

What Jim did was to first of all formalize this whole notion of a transaction, those sorts of properties. And then he invented the technical approaches that are used to achieve these goals. For example, how do you actually write a program that ensures that a transaction is atomic, that when the dust has settled either it's completed correctly or it's like it had never been attempted?

ROBERTS: And how was he able to turn those database principles for the benefit of science?

Prof. LAZOWSKA: Well, when Jim moved to Microsoft - which is, gosh, about 10 years ago now - he became interested in trying to use commercial database systems for technical data. The first task he undertook, actually at Microsoft's urging, was to create the world's largest Web accessible database. And he scratched his head and he said, wow, geez, you know, what might people be interested in accessing?

And he came up with the idea of satellite imagery and built a system called TeraServer, which you should think of as the predecessor of Google Earth and the other similar systems. How do you store terabytes of data? How do you create a snappy user experience when you're really accessing enormous amounts of photographic data? So TeraServer was a triumph.

Somehow then Jim bumped into a set of astronomers who were trying to figure out how to do what became the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. And what's great about that is it completely democratizes astronomy in this case. The same Web site that gives data to astronomers all over the world is a Website that parents and kids can use to view the heavens, to manipulate the data. So the fact that all of this data is available to everyone is a tremendous change.

ROBERTS: Ed Lazowska holds the Bill and Melinda Gates chair in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington.

Ed Lazowska, thank you so much.

Prof. LAZOWSKA: You're very welcome.

ROBERTS: There's still no word on the whereabouts of Jim Gray, who's been missing since he set sail from San Francisco last Sunday. The Coast Guard says it will resume the search if new information is found.

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