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Malcolm I. Raff (1940–2010)

Published onDec 01, 2011
Malcolm I. Raff (1940–2010)

In his seventy years, Malcolm Raff never did figure out exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up. The only son of lawyer Henry Raff and music teacher Ruth Raff (nee Marshak), Mal’s interests vacillated between the analytical and the artistic. Early skill as a pianist and trombone player competed for his youthful attention with amateur radio and astronomy, leading him to pursue a liberal arts education at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, from which institution he earned BS degrees in math and physics in 1961. Mal’s lifelong passion for flying, leading to his becoming not only a licensed commercial pilot but also a certified flight instructor (airplane, instruments, and helicopter) was kindled in graduate school at the University of Illinois (MS astronomy 1963), and refined during his years at the University of California, Berkeley (PhD astrophysics, 1976).

Mal’s love of aviation derived in part from his viewing birds as kin. He told his wife Connie to watch birds land if she wanted to understand how an airplane should land. Following a devastating Bay Area oil spill in 1971, he not only assisted with cleanup, but began banding birds, cataloguing their blood samples, and tracking their health. This interest in ornithology continued throughout his life, toward the end of which Mal was a lead technical volunteer for the Mickaboo Bird Rescue Organization, and guardian to a large family of rescued birds, including:

  • QT, an eight year old Lessor Sulpher Crested Cockatoo, adopted four years ago

  • Pique, a 32 year old Red-Vented Cockatoo, adopted two years ago

  • Cabernet, a Crimson Rosella from Australia, age unknown, adopted 2 ½ years ago

  • Bruno, a ten year old Brown Headed Cow Bird, rescued when found out of its nest

  • Noe, Protrero, Duboce, and Taraval, four Cherry Head Conures of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, raised by Mal from age two weeks, and all named after streets of San Francisco.

After flirting with an academic career for a couple of years in the Berkeley astronomy department, Mal put his nascent computer science skills to work, first at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, then in the aerospace industry, and later at a string of cutting-edge biotechnology companies (some of which he had helped to co-found). He became a recognized leader not only in database manipulation, but also in digital image processing on a grand scale, leading to his playing a pivotal role in the Human Genome Project. At Applied Biosystems in the early 1980s, Mal conceived and implemented the original digital signal processing algorithms and graphics for the world’s first automated DNA sequencer, modifying data acquisition and analysis techniques to permit DNA mapping. I once asked Mal how he made the unlikely transition from astrophysics to genetic engineering. “It’s all the same process,” he replied. “The techniques that I once applied to imaging the very far and distant, I now use to analyze the very small and near.”

When the NASA SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) program was cancelled by the US Congress in 1993, Mal was one of the first radio amateurs to devote his skills and energies to helping privatize the research. A charter member of the non-profit SETI League, Mal chaired that organization’s Strategic Planning Committee and participated actively in its annual symposia and technical workshops.

His SETI activities (plus reruns of classic Star Trek episodes) motivated Mal to contemplate extraterrestrial life. Around the time the SETI League was founded, he chanced to take up scuba diving. The reefs off the coast of Central America, he commented, are probably as close as he would ever come to experiencing what life might be like on an alien planet.

Upon his retirement, Mal pursued his passion for music, first as a benefactor to the Jazzschool in Berkeley, then as a student of Brazilian jazz and vibraphone (an instrument he had always admired and wanted to learn), and ultimately as a gifted vibe player, as well as founder and leader of Riff Raff, a locally acclaimed jazz combo.

Barry Lloyd, a mutual friend, is a former Army helicopter pilot who was injured in VietNam. He met Mal in the mid 1970s at a meeting of the UC Berkeley Flying Club. Mal expressed an interest in helicopters, and Barry was looking for a way to get back into flying following his long hospitalization and recuperation. Barry found Mal “very brash, and incredibly interesting. He seemed to know how everything worked.” They struck a deal, in which they would instruct each other. To this day, Barry says he got the better end of the bargain.

Benjamin Mendelsohn, another former flight student of Mal’s, recalls that his professional life was “filled with careers in different disciplines, which presented a series of puzzles that engaged his curiosity. He combined his image processing skills and his aviation interests to develop a vision system that would allow aircraft to land in zero visibility conditions. After that, he moved into biotechnology where he spent most of his professional career. Mal worked on the programming of one of the first mechanisms that would take a prepared strand of genetic material, whose special dyes would light up when lit by a laser, and based on the light emanating from the strand the sequences of bases that made it up could be read out. Mal once joked that the expertise he developed as an astronomer to look at the dips in the spectra from stars now allowed him to look at the peaks in the signal by flipping his downs to ups in his programs. Clever, that!”

Fred Leif, a fellow radio amateur, recalls that “ some 30 years ago a group of amateur radio operators in Berkeley came together to talk about organizing so as to aid our community during disasters. Mal was recognized as one of the few who had experience in using radio during emergencies. As it turned out, he had a lot to teach us about the task at hand. We went through a year of internal bickering, but Mal was a guiding light … he stuck to his principles … and demanded excellence. Over the following decades we built a highly functioning group. We were tested by the Loma Prieta Earthquake and the Oakland Hills Fire. We were recognized by our clients and our peers as a reliable, professional caliber, citizen volunteer group. We earned their trust and respect, from which Mal derived a level of satisfaction.” For these and other contributions, Mal Raff (radio amateur WA6UNP) was inducted posthumously into CQ Magazine’s Amateur Radio Hall of Fame.

In a conversation reminiscent of a scene from the TV sitcom “Big Bang Theory,” Mal and his friend Tanya Renner once speculated on what superpower they would want, should they ever become superheroes. Mal said he would choose clarity. “Yet, Mal already had clarity,” recalls Tanya. “The ability to perceive, without obscurity, was one of Mal's numerous and wonderful traits. He understood the individuality of each being, bird or human, he met. He also had the foresight to adapt to challenging new projects, and bountifully contributed knowledge based on his amazing experiences. Mal was equally my mentor, friend, and superhero of clarity.”

“Above all, to me, Mal had a big heart and a big brain--a rare and potent combination,” recalls colleague Kevin Hockett. “He was a clear example of a person who never stopped growing, who always found new things to learn and master and love. I won't now be able to see a chromatogram trace, a bird preening in shade, or a star turning out its light, and not equally see Mal.”

Former flight student Juan Richardson reminisces, “The first time I saw Mal I thought that he looked like an interesting person who might be worth getting to know. That turned out to be truer than I expected. One tip-off was those bushy, wild, out-of-control eyebrows. Then there was the Berkeleyesque attire with science oriented T-shirts. Here was definitely a person who was going to be the person who he wanted to be, with minimal accommodation to societal norms. People liked that about him - or they didn't, it didn't matter. He liked living in Berkeley because of the university atmosphere. He sort-of never left college, but he did make the transition from student to teacher. Teaching was what he did, it is the role that he liked to be in - and he was good at it. He saw it as a two step process: acquire knowledge, then dispense it - and he liked both aspects.”

“Some say the measure of a man is in what he accomplishes,” notes Mal’s fellow musician, pilot, ham radio operator, and former coworker George Golda. “One can certainly say Mal was a Jack of all trades and Master of ALL, but the true measure of Mal was his deep compassion for all things living. His insight into human nature and his empathy for others broke through his sometimes crusty but thin veneer. No matter how much he tried, he could not hide the fact that he loved you. His tongue-in-cheek sense of humor coupled with his sly grin would floor you, and will be sorely missed by all who knew him. Sometimes we are lucky in this life to cross the path of a rare jewel. Mal was that jewel to his wife Connie, and the myriad of family and friends too numerous to name.”

Malcolm Isaac Raff was diagnosed with a glioblastoma on August 1, 2010, and died at home three months later. He is survived by his wife Connie Woods, sister Judi Lehrhaupt in Pennsylvania, the aforementioned eight birds, and a very old and wise adopted tortoise.

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