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Japan Prize Comes to Google

Since 1985, Japan has recognized innovators in science and technology from around the world with its annual Japan Prize. But the ferocious, earthquake-spawned tsunami that struck the island nation in March and the subsequent nuclear crisis put this year's award ceremonies on hold.

That is, until Vint Cerf stepped in.

Google's chief Internet evangelist, co-progenitor of the Internet and the Silicon Valley's dapper-est technologist brought the event to his company's Mountain View, Calif. headquarters last month. The Japan Foundation's chairman, Prof. Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, traveled to California to present this year's award in person to Dr. Ken Thompson, a distinguished engineer at Google who co-created the Unix operating system with Dr. Dennis Ritchie, Distinguished Member of Technical Staff Emeritus at Bell Labs. Dr. Thompson received his award during a simple ceremony at the Googleplex; a separate event was scheduled for Dr. Ritchie in New Jersey.

It would be hard to overstate the impact of Unix, which the two computer scientists created in the late 1960s at a time when operating systems were bulky, disorganized hairballs tied to specific hunks of hardware. Unix was fast, lightweight and, perhaps most important, portable. Prof. Yoshikawa called it "a major driving force behind the development of the information age."

Since 1985, 70 people from 13 countries have received the Japan Prize in the two broad fields it covers: Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Engineering; and Biology, Agriculture and Medicine. Ten Japan Prize winners have also won Nobel Prizes. Thompson and Ritchie received certificates of recognition, a commemorative gold medal and a cash award of 50 million Japanese yen (about $600,000), which they split.

Prof. Yoshikawa took a moment before presenting the award to thank Google for launching Person Finder. Created by the search engine giant's crisis response team, Person Finder an interactive database designed to allows users to search for missing persons online, or submit information about people who are injured or missing. Reportedly, more than 400,000 records were tracked by the tool.

I was invited to attend the local ceremony, which was no doubt a shadow of the event in Japan, where Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko actually attend. But Dr. Thompson seemed delighted, and downright humble.

"We were just trying to get something better to get our own work done," Thompson said.

He also told a long story about an impulse purchase of a baby alligator, which he raised in a Pyrex dish in his Bell Labs office when he was a junior scientist, and whose escape earned him company-wide notoriety. (It just got funnier and funnier.)

Before the award was presented, we were treated to a little video history of the careers of Thompson and Ritchie, during which both scientists separately admonished young researchers to pursue their passions without regard for their commercial implications (more or less).

"Research and development are two different things," Thompson said. "Development has clear goals, but research is goal-less because it is the act of discovering something new. My advice to researchers is to continue enjoying the research at hand....Unix resulted from research into new things we were merely interested in. We were very lucky it turned out to be very fruitful."

We spend a lot of time here focused on enterprise software development, which is all about goals. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but it's good to be reminded from time to time of the potential of simple curiosity fully embraced.

Posted by John K. Waters on June 20, 2011