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COLUMN ONE

Missing, yet still a presence

Even fellow tech experts couldn't find a trace of Jim Gray and his sailboat. But what they learned in the hunt could help others.

May 30, 2008|Michelle Quinn | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The daylong event honoring the computer-science whiz who helped create automated teller machines will be part celebration, part science fair.

But don't call it a memorial or funeral. That would be too final.

The commemoration of Jim Gray's life on Saturday is billed as a "tribute," as if the 6-foot-3 Microsoft Corp. researcher might stroll right into UC Berkeley's Wheeler Hall for the kind of academic symposium he loved to attend, where experts come together to solve a problem.

In this case, though, the hundreds of technologists and Silicon Valley executives who are expected will have to confront the one puzzle they couldn't crack: What happened to Jim Gray?

This is known: On Jan. 28, 2007, a clear, calm Sunday, the world-renowned scientist set out across the San Francisco Bay toward the Golden Gate Bridge on his 40-foot red sailboat named Tenacious to scatter his mother's ashes. He never returned.

Since February 2007, when friends from across the high-tech field ended one of the most sophisticated amateur searches for a missing person in U.S. history, there has been no public remembrance for Gray. His friends and colleagues have slipped back to their own lives, privately grappling with their loss and their theories about what happened to him.

People go missing every day. How families, friends and co-workers face their inability to find a loved one and live with the mystery often depends on their culture and how they look at life's challenges, said Pauline Boss, an expert on grief who is speaking at the event and has consulted with the family on how to commemorate Gray.

"If you think in absolutes, you either got the answer or you didn't," she said. "The challenge is, how can you move forward without feeling like you failed or feel good even though you did not find the answer? It requires binary thinking instead of absolute thinking -- he's probably dead but maybe not."

When Gray was first reported missing, some speculated that he had meant to disappear and was hiding somewhere. But Gray's friends have calculated the odds that he's still alive and know they're slim. They now believe that the boat was struck by debris or another vessel and went down quickly, then was swept out to deep sea.

But these are captains of industry and technology, people who think there's no problem that can't be solved with money or Silicon Valley know-how. Although they concluded they had failed, some are dealing with their grief by trying to fix its cause. They believe their search for Gray pointed to new ways for technology to help future search-and-rescue efforts.

Many of these problem solvers have struggled, too, with the idiosyncratic nature of the particular grief that comes with a missing person whose death is unconfirmed. They have had to respect the wishes of the Gray family not to hold funerals or memorials, and, for a time, not to refer to him in the past tense.

"What the community hasn't had, and only partially has now, is permission to mourn," said Pat Helland, a software architect at Microsoft who knew Gray for more than 25 years. "Even though we're all rational, it's not appropriate to say, 'Jim is dead.' But we all understand we won't see Jim again."

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In the lingo of database programs, which were Gray's specialty, something must have happened that January day that overrode Gray's intent.

He told his family he planned to sail near the Farallon Islands, a wildlife refuge 27 miles off the Northern California shoreline. He called his wife and daughter from the sailboat that day. When he didn't return, his wife alerted the harbor master, who called the U.S. Coast Guard.

Gray's disappearance shocked the high-tech community. He was a legend in the field for his nimble and wide-ranging mind and for applying his expertise in databases to help researchers in other fields, such as human genomics, astronomy and oceanography. He had worked at IBM Corp., Tandem Computers Inc. and Digital Equipment Corp. For more than 10 years, he oversaw Microsoft's research lab in San Francisco. In 1998, he was awarded the computer industry's highest honor, the A.M. Turing Award.

Some people are good at organizing closets and drawers. Jim Gray was a personal organizer of information, creating databases that would make information usable. He believed that if he could arrange information in an elegant way, he could accelerate the sciences.

As the Coast Guard searched 132,000 square miles by boat, helicopter and plane, Gray's friends and colleagues from companies such as Amazon.com Inc., Oracle Corp., Google Inc. and Microsoft used their connections in industry and government to reposition satellites to take images of the California coastline.

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