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In 1956, David Gross entered MIT. He chose the college because there was a computer on campus — a computer.
"He loved that he could tell it what to do, and it would do it," his older son, Barry, remembers.
After MIT, he worked at Digital Equipment Corporation for 45 years with the same team. They called him "The Guru." When no one else could tackle high-order problems about computer-to-computer communication, or digital-audio processing, or fast chip simulators, he did.
David spoke humbly about the work, but with such specificity it was as if decades of detail had not passed.
“'We had to move a bit in the accumulator over and clear the accumulator so I could fix this next piece of code in, but you had to know the order, and the order was this,'” Barry impersonates. "That’s kind of how his mind was — an incredibly good memory, and the detail was so crisp."
He played constantly with code, and also with humor.
"He would crack jokes all the time, and sometimes you’d have to get into the mind set of an electrical engineer to understand the punchline," Barry remembers.
The wit crept into the job. Once he was working on a piece of debugging code, and as he explained on an archival tape, "Somebody inspired me to try this: we found the spot where it printed the word 'error,' which is what it did for some sort of mistype to the debugger. And I patched it so instead of printing the word 'error,' it would print, 'To err is human, to forgive divine.' I spliced that on to the end of the debugging tape."
When he realized the trouble it could cause, he immediately changed it back.
David was driven by code, but also by Halakha, the laws of an ethical Jewish life. In synagogue on Saturdays he studied Talmud. Sometimes, when the rabbi wasn’t there, he led the discussion.
The night before his death, he was puzzling over questions of meaning.
"The last story he told me before he fell asleep and passed away was the story of Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven," Barry recalls. "There were 70 angels coming up and down the ladder with him — and those angels are supposed to be family members and descendants -- and they can only count 69. So there’s a puzzle: what is that 70th angel? And the rabbi came up with a very touching idea that maybe it was my father."
In his humility, David would never have considered the possibility. He died last December in Sudbury. He was 76 years old.
Did you know David Gross? Share your memories in the comments section.
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