IBM Research

IBM Fellow Ron Fagin Elected to the National Academy of Sciences

Fagin is known as a founder of relational database theory and the creator of the field of finite model theory.

Ron Fagin has earned a long list of distinctions throughout his 47-year career at IBM Research, including IBM Fellow and member of three prestigious national academies: the National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and now the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Still, something about his election to the NAS on April 27 prompted Fagin to do something he had never done before.

“As a mathematician and a scientist, the NAS honor is something really special. So I sent a note to my entire management chain, telling them,” he says. “All the way up to the CEO, I was so excited. And they all responded quickly and very positively!”

Ron’s manager, Alex Gray, VP of AI Science commented: “I can't be more proud of Ron on behalf of all of us working on foundational research in general. I'd like everyone to know too, that Ron is showing no signs of slowing down in the production of great results, with what appears to be a quite major result in the critical project we're working on together,” referring to Ron’s more recent work in neuro-symbolic AI.

Fagin’s enthusiasm is well-founded, as this year’s lineup of NAS inductees includes only a handful of fellow computer science luminaries, including Vint Cerf (widely recognized as the “Father of the Internet”), and Stanford University Computer Scientist Jeffrey Ullmn. Fagin also becomes only the third active IBM scientist in the NAS, alongside IBM Fellows Charles Bennett, famous for finding interconnections between physics and information, and Georg Bednorz, who won the 1987 Nobel Prize for his work on high-temperature superconductivity.

Fagin began his career at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights in 1973, and transferred to what is now IBM Research-Almaden in 1975. In 2012, he was named an IBM Fellow, the company's pre-eminent technical distinction, granted in recognition of outstanding and sustained technical achievements and leadership in engineering, programming, services, science and technology.

The move to San Jose marked a real turning point in Fagin’s professional life. “I did some pretty good research at Yorktown on miss ratios that I was proud of,” Fagin says. “But I found it quite discouraging that the work was almost never cited, and I got very few requests from other researchers for reprints.” (In those days, reprints were requested by mail and delivered by mail.) After relocating to San Jose, Fagin decided to try something different, “something the world would actually care about,” he says.

That “something” turned out to be relational databases, an area of research that began to blossom in the late 1970s under the guidance of IBM computer scientist Edgar “Ted” Codd, who would later win the Turing Award for his work. “When I arrived in San Jose, I looked around the lab to see whose work seemed most interesting,” Fagin says. “I pretty quickly decided that was Ted, who was the father of relational databases. Working with him changed my life.”

All of a sudden, Fagin’s research was in demand. “Lots of people began citing my new research, and I got lots of requests for preprints and reprints,” he says. “Therefore, I decided to make databases my research focus, and databases have remained one of my main areas of research ever since.”

In subsequent years, Fagin would be recognized as a founder of relational database theory and the creator of the field of finite model theory. He also authored seminal work in information integration and aggregation and became a thought leader in the field of reasoning about knowledge. His work advanced both the theory and practice of modern computing systems, especially data management systems. Fagin’s key inventions include extendible hashing (widely used in database query processing), differential data backup (a key feature of IBM Tivoli software) and critical tools for database design.

Fagin is the author of numerous scholarly papers, as well as a co-author of Reasoning About Knowledge (MIT Press, 1995. Paperback edition 2003), thought by many to be the first book to provide a general discussion of approaches to reasoning about knowledge and its applications to distributed systems, artificial intelligence and game theory.

He traces his interest in mathematics back to his earliest school years in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where he was born and raised. “I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of proving things,” Fagin says. “By the time I finished my ninth-grade geometry class, I knew I wanted to be a mathematician.” That choice led him to Dartmouth College, where he graduated with a B.A. in Mathematics in 1967. While at Dartmouth, Fagin was the Research Assistant to renowned mathematician and computer scientist John Kemeny, then head of Dartmouth’s math department (and later, President of Dartmouth). Kemeny had been the Research Assistant to Albert Einstein at Princeton University, so Fagin likes to refer to Einstein as his “academic grandfather”.

Fagin earned his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1973. As part of his Ph.D. thesis in mathematical logic on finite model theory, he proved what is now a famous mathematical result widely called "Fagin's Theorem", which ties together complexity theory and logic, making a very surprising connection between how hard it is to solve a problem and how hard it is to express it.

In addition to Fagin’s Theorem, other concepts named after him are “Fagin’s algorithm for score aggregation”, the “Fagin-inverse” for data exchange, and “Fagin games” and “Ajtai Fagin games” for proving inexpressibility in logic.

Fagin is the recipient of many other accolades that include a Fellow of ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) and AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), and a Life Fellow of IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineer). In 2014, one of his papers won the Gödel Prize, the highest award for a paper in theoretical computer science and the only database paper ever to win the Gödel Prize. He won the IEEE W. Wallace McDowell Award (the “IT Nobel”, the highest award of the IEEE Computer Society), the IEEE Technical Achievement Award, and the ACM SIGMOD Edgar F. Codd Innovations Award (a lifetime achievement award in databases). He was named Docteur Honoris Causa (an honorary doctoral degree) by the University of Paris, and Laurea Honoris Causa (the highest honor of the Italian university system) by the University of Calabria.

The accolades do not end with his professional life. Fagin and his wife, Susan, also own a French bulldog named Rocky who won Best of Breed at the 2015 Westminster Dog Show.

When asked if he has celebrated his NAS honor, Fagin says, “I haven’t done any celebrating yet, other than feeling really, really good.”