Software Development

Cryptographer and computer scientist Robert Morris dies at 78

One of the men instrumental in early work on Unix, and the retired chief scientist of the NSA's National Computer Security Center, passed away this summer.

Robert Morris was born on 25 July 1932, the son of a salesman. After a earning a Master's degree in mathematics, he worked at Bell Labs, where he wrote some of the basic software for the system. Among his contributions were its math library, the crypt utility, and its password encryption scheme.

After leaving Bell Labs in 1986, he worked at the NSA as the chief scientist of the National Computer Security Center, and ultimately retired in 1994.

He was an innovator, one of the world's most well-respected computer scientists, and played a key role in US digital assaults on Saddam Hussein's government in preparation for the Persian Gulf war of the early 1990s. Unfortunately for the curious among us, the specifics of his involvement in that early "cyberwar" operation are still classified.

He is commemorated in part by Clifford Stoll's book, The Cuckoo's Egg, which describes Morris and his posing of a tricky mathematical problem known as the look-and-say sequence:

What is the next number in the sequence 1 11 21 1211 111221?

Dennis Ritchie, of Unix and C programming language fame, described cryptographic research he performed with Robert Morris and Jim Reeds when Morris worked at Bell Labs, as well as the reason they never published that research, in his story "Dabbling in the Cryptographic World." The paper was actually submitted to the periodical Cryptologia and to the NSA. Rather than spoil the story with a summary of how it turned out here, you should read the rest as Ritchie relates the tale.

Unfortunately, one of the things for which the name Robert Morris is most known is a mistake made by his son, Robert Tappan Morris, the inventor of the infamous Morris Worm. The Morris Worm was only intended to measure the current size of the Internet in 1988, arguably the first computer worm epidemic, and also the subject of the first Computer Fraud and Abuse Act conviction in the US since it was passed in 1986. The problem was that a miscalculation caused the worm to replicate much more quickly than expected, resulting in what amounted to a denial of service attack on the entire Internet.

Morris passed away on 26 June 2011 at the age of 78, as a result of complications related to dementia.

On a more personal note, my grandmother was an intelligent, thoughtful person, at least until she developed Alzheimer's Disease. She passed away a few years ago, but I am not entirely certain it really makes sense to think of the woman who passed away as the same person I remember as my grandmother -- the woman who taught me to spell refrigerator, who sparked my interest in woodchucks, and who taught me an important lesson about security when I was very young.

Long before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, I realized one day that among all the bad things that could happen to me, the deterioration of my intellect ranked right up there among the worst. I suspect that the more a person is a thinker, the worse a fear senile dementia becomes. I really do not want to imagine how Robert Morris felt about his senile dementia.

I am grateful for his contributions to computer science and security, however, and I wish him peace.

About

Chad Perrin is an IT consultant, developer, and freelance professional writer. He holds both Microsoft and CompTIA certifications and is a graduate of two IT industry trade schools.

6 comments
Michael Jay
Michael Jay

Could not get it, even with your look and say hint. Very cool sequence, I expected math but it is not. Had to google to find the answer and it really was an ah-ha moment.

seanferd
seanferd

That's terrible, especially for people who use their brains as a finely honed tool.

apotheon
apotheon

It is very much a "trick question".

JCitizen
JCitizen

It is very sad to say, but she didn't know, anymore, or less, that she had lost it toward the end. She was definitely unhappy and cognizant of her condition for many years before the end, however. This was a special torture, as she was the brains of the family. My brother had a hard time realizing this, at first. At least they kept very good care of her and she was happy enough that she refused to leave the confines of the ward where she lived. Parkinson's served the coup de grace.

seanferd
seanferd

It was hard to tell at first, as she and her sisters were so wacky to begin with. :) But she eventually deteriorated into a machine which would ingest things placed into her mouth, excepting very strange and surprising seconds of lucidity. She lived for years like that. I've known quite a few people with various dementias. My neighbor is starting down that road with Alzheimer's now. At least it waited until he was past 80.