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3/30/2007
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The Search For Microsoft Researcher Jim Gray

Colleagues rallied to look for the renowned computer scientist, but to no avail.

It's not unheard of for recreational sailors to go missing off the California coast. The U.S. Coast Guard searches for them, executing precisely aligned grid patterns around their last known location. After that, if they're not found, they're considered gone.

Computer scientist Jim Gray disappeared Jan. 28 after sailing out of San Francisco Bay to scatter his mother's ashes at the Farallon Islands, 27 miles offshore. An extended, four-day search by the U.S. Coast Guard by air and sea turned up nothing, and that might have been that. But the search for the 63-year-old Gray--a distinguished engineer with Microsoft Research, database expert, and Turing Award winner for his work in transaction processing--didn't end there.

The Coast Guard's search was methodical

The Coast Guard's search was methodical

Photo by Landov
A worldwide network of friends, associates, and fellow researchers launched an all-out search of their own. For 16 days in February, they undertook one of the most wide-reaching volunteer search efforts ever organized. They used the latest technologies--and even developed their own --to scour the ocean surface, collaborate, and crunch data, while also resorting to the gumshoe work of posting missing-person fliers at marinas up and down the California coast.

There were promising moments, times when a speck on a satellite image caused the volunteers to strain their eyes for a closer look--sometimes jumping in planes to follow leads. In the end, however, the volunteers couldn't find Gray either, and on Feb. 16, the ad hoc search was disbanded. Those closest to Gray may still hold out hope that he's somehow alive. His personal Web page at www.microsoft.com/research appears just as it did on the day he set sail. Others, however, are almost sure he is dead.

To those who knew him, it defies reason that this hardy, experienced sailor vanished in the Pacific. "He was very comfortable sailing in the ocean off San Francisco Bay," says Michael Stonebraker, a friend for 35 years, former professor of computer science at the University of California at Berkeley, and founder of Ingres, Illustra, and Vertica Systems.

Paula Hawthorn, former VP of research and development at Informix (now part of IBM), first raised the question of manipulating satellite data to search for Gray's 40-foot sailboat, Tenacious. The idea was to apply large database techniques Gray himself pioneered in the effort to find him.

Gray was already known for "dragging astronomy into the 20th century" by showing astrophysicists how they could capture and share terabytes of data on the heavens, says James Bellingham, chief technologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. More recently, Gray had developed an interest in oceanography, and he and Bellingham were planning to build a database system that could be used to model an ocean's currents and surface. In the face of possible climate change, "Jim was saying, 'We've got to solve this problem. We've got to get good information out of the ocean.'"

FLURRY OF HOPE

Many of Gray's contemporaries regularly work with large amounts of digital imagery, and they seized the opportunity to put that expertise to work in search of their peer. Gray, who worked for IBM, Digital Equipment, and Tandem Computers before Microsoft, never lost touch with his friends at Berkeley. When it was clear the Coast Guard search was ending, Joe Hellerstein, a computer science professor at Berkeley, established a Web site (openphi.net/tenacious) where searchers could collaborate. The group was told by the Coast Guard, "If we could turn up any evidence that he was out there to be saved, they would jump right back into the search," Hellerstein says.

Oracle VP Mike Olson met Gray as a Berkeley grad student and worked with Gray's wife, Donna, at Illustra. An experienced organizer of volunteers from his work with open source software, Olson began talking to Bellingham, Hellerstein, and other technologists about their expertise and how it might be used.

The effort extended well beyond the Bay Area. In Seattle, Werner Vogel, CTO of Amazon.com and a former student of Gray's, would play a key role. Dozens of Gray's co-workers at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters were freed up to help. Associates at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh joined in, as did Istvan Szapudi, a physicist at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, with whom Gray had worked.

This story was modified April 2 to correct the date Gray set sail.

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