Tim May 1951-2018

I was sorry to learn yesterday of the death of Tim May, who had been a frequent commenter here on the blog. For more about his life, see here and here.

One can find his comments here for instance by this search. In some of these he told a bit of the story of his life. I’ll include here part of one such comment:

In 1970 I was accepted at MIT, Stanford, and Berkeley for college. I transferred my acceptance and Regents Scholarship from Berkeley to UC Santa Barbara. A lesser school compared to Berkeley, on overall grounds, but a more interesting fit to my interests. (College of Creative Studies, with many advantages.)

By around 1972 it was clear the Big Drought was unfolding. Tales of Ph.D.s driving taxi cabs, professors advising that the odds of the then-current Ph.D. candidates getting a real position were dwindling. (Besides the overall downsizing of HEP and other physics funding, there was a glut of physics professors who had been hired in the post-Sputnik boom era….and they were still 30 years or more from retirement.)

Fast forwarding, I decided to not apply to grad school and instead join a small semiconductor company. There, I worked on a bunch of “engineering physics” probems. Because we were the leaders in dynamic RAM memory, I had exposure to some interesting problems. One of them was the mysterious issue of bits sometimes being flipped, but not permanently. In fact, the bit flips were apparently random and occurred only once (or at least close to only once…).

My physics background served me well, as I knew about the physics of how the devices worked (more so than a lot of the EE folks, who thought in terms of circuits), and I knew some geology. I had a brain storm that maybe low levels of uranium or thorium or the like in our ceramic and glass packages were causing the problem. Some experiments confirmed this. And all of the physics calculations about charged particle tracks in silicon matched. A lot of stuff I don’t have the space here to describe.

So my career was launched. Lots of papers on this “soft error” phenomenon. (Oh, and the cosmic ray corrollary was indeed obvious: but in 1978 when the first paper was presented, it was insignificant as a source as compared to alpha particles.)

Instead of spending until 1980-82 doing a Ph.D. and then 4-8 years or more as a post-doc, I had some fun and retired from Intel in 1986.

I’ve been pleasantly able to pursue whatever interested me ever since.

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2 Responses to Tim May 1951-2018

  1. Jeff Berkowitz says:

    Sigh. Wow. Sigh and wow. I’d never heard Tim May’s name. Sigh.

    Peter, I’m old enough to remember when this discovery was made and the decision by that “small semiconductor company” to go public with the information rather than retaining it for proprietary advantage.

    There’s a mention in http://www2.ece.rochester.edu/~xinli/usenix07/ And although it sounds funny today, Intel was pretty small in 1978. The whole industry was small. That was an important piece of work.

    “[T]he first evidence of soft errors at sea level due to radiation was given in 1978 by May and Woods from Intel [56, 57].” https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/721a/093aba13979c674878c4076fa28dc8fcd0d0.pdf

    Here’s the paper itself: https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/1479948

    I’m sad. Thank you for posting.

  2. Peter
    I was on the cypherpunks list in the early noughties and, while tremendously inspired by his technical prowess and prophecies, I found his misuse of the term ‘anarchist’ odd.

    So ‘ Yes’ to the technological determinism. ‘ No’ to the Randite-Rothbard politics.

    There’s some interesting threads in the archives ( MARC ) of cypherpunks for physics buffs. Just dig around in there.

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