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Monday, March 4, 2013

Honoring a Force of Nature, in Computers and Networks

As a brilliant Israeli-born math student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the 1960s, Danny Cohen was known as a force of nature. And when he learned that Ivan Sutherland, the inventor of the seminal Sketchpad computer interface system, was teaching a small graduate seminar on computer graphics at Harvard, he was determined to take the course.

“At that time the way you got into courses like that was that Harvard had a quaint little phrase, ‘admission by consent of the instructor,’” recalled Robert F. Sproull, a computer scientist who was a Harvard student at the time. “Danny had shown up and we all figured that Ivan had consented, but later we learned, according to Ivan, it was more like relented.”

The Israeli math prodigy would go on to become a graduate student with Dr. Sutherland, with whom he designed the first computerized flight simulation system, pioneering the software technique for hiding visual surfaces from view.

After earning his doctorate hejoined the Harvard computer science faculty and then moved to the University of Southern California, where he spent 20 years at the Information Sciences Institute. While at the institute he made fundamental contributions that included developing techniques for sending voice and other “real time” information over the Arpanet, the predecessor to the modern Internet; to helping create the Metal Oxide Semiconductor Implementation Service, the first computer chip “foundry,” which helped train a generation of students in the art of Very Large Scale Integrated circuit design, as well as inventing a ultra-high speed networking system, which made possible the first commodity computing clusters â€" forerunners of today’s cloud computing systems â€" practical.

Along the way he achieved a legendary status inside the elite computing fraternity who pioneered today’s computers and networks.

On Saturday, to celebrate his recent retirement as a distinguished engineer from the former Sun Mic! rosystems Laboratories, which in 2009 became part of Oracle, a small group of computing pioneers gathered at Google to hold a “Festschrift” â€" which traditionally refers to a book written to honor a respected academic colleague.

Among the more than 40 attendees who came to the afternoon seminar and told stories about Dr. Cohen’s academic accomplishments and adventures were Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, who designed the original Internet protocols; Larry Roberts, an early ARPA manager who would become the first president of Telnet and later other networking firms; Leonard Kleinrock, a UCLA computer scientist who did early design work in computer networking; Charles Seitz, a California Institute of Technology computer scientist who designed some of the first supercomputers based on cheap microprocessors; Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT; Ivan and William Robert Sutherland, known as Bert, brothers who pioneered a range of computing technologies at Xerox, Sun and esewhere; and Deborah L. Estrin, a member of a well known family of computer scientists who recently became the first professor hired by CornellNYC Tech.

Long known for both a sly sense of humor and also being a bit of a practical joker, Dr. Cohen over the years took to publishing with a mysterious co-author, the imaginary “Professor James Finnegan” (who is cited twice in Dr. Cohen’s Wikipedia entry). A scientist playing Dr. Finnegan, outfitted in a tiger-stripe sport coat, made a presentation on Saturday â€" an academic treatise on the invention of something called a “daser.” Just as the laser amplified light, the daser, he noted, would amplify darkness.

Ron Ho, a microprocessor architect at Oracle, described arriving at Sun Labs in 2003 and on his second day Dr. Cohen, introducing himself as “Danny,” charged into his office and handed him a paper written by Professor Finnegan and told him he must read it.

As he read the paper Dr. Ho became more and more enraged. â€! œIt wasnâ! €™t until I got to the very end where it said, ‘the more processors, the better the paper,’ that I realized it was a joke,” he recalled.