The Search For Microsoft Researcher Jim Gray - InformationWeek

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The Search For Microsoft Researcher Jim Gray

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


When Alex Szalay, an astronomy professor at Johns Hopkins University, learned of Gray's disappearance, he "couldn't believe what had happened." The two had been collaborating on astronomy databases for 10 years. Upon hearing that a volunteer search was in the works, he stayed up all night in touch with his son at Cal Tech in Pasadena. Together, they wrote a Photoshop script that "stretched" satellite image data of the sort that would soon be available so that the human eye could discern a 40-foot boat. They then put 16 postdoctoral students and grad students with image-viewing experience to work examining satellite data available from DigitalGlobal, a com- pany that Gray had worked with in his own research. DigitalGlobal had reoriented satellite cameras to pick up images for the area of the Pacific that Szalay wanted to search.

As with the Amazon effort, Szalay developed software that sliced up im- ages that were 8,192 pixels on each side into smaller tiles. Unlike Mechanical Turk's reliance on slow-loading Web pages, reviewers at Johns Hopkins could move through these tiles quickly, using the university's broadband network.

They came up with two strong possibles, one found by Julian Bunn, a particle physicist at Cal Tech. He detected a pattern of a boat that no one else could see under a thick cloud cover, and it was verified through image-enhancement techniques. "That was a brilliant piece of work," recalls Szalay. But the sighting was eventually ruled out.

Another boat, spotted by the team about 70 miles offshore from California's Point Reyes, was confirmed by expert analysis as a strong target. Radar data from the Canadian Space Agency was cross-referenced and produced evidence of a boat. Its location corresponded with the drift trajectory analysis of where a boat would be had it veered off course from the Farallons. Barclay chartered a flight, and Tennenhouse climbed aboard. The boat was located, but it was yet another disappointment. It turned out to be a fishing vessel the same size as Tenacious.

Looking back, Tennenhouse gives the volunteer search effort a B for solid performance, but he regrets it was too slow in getting under way and too uncertain of its own results. No evidence of what happened to Gray turned up in the immense data search. "We had some hope of finding him, but it turned out to be like looking for a needle in a haystack," he says.

Despite the disappointing result, there is hope that the techniques applied in the search for the admired researcher--the use of satellite images, ocean-current modeling, Mechanical Turk, Web collaboration--can be used in future searches of vast open spaces. As someone who devoted his life's work to using technology in breakthrough ways, Gray would surely smile at that legacy.

The exhaustive effort that followed Gray's disappearance is a testament to how highly he is regarded by his peers in business and science. He brought new ideas to their work and sometimes assistance in the form of computing power. "All his projects had in common the goal of stretching what computing can do beyond its present capabilities," says John White, CEO of the Association for Computing Machinery.

Gray was expert at "stripping away mystery by making things simple," says Eric Allman, CTO of Sendmail and the author of the Sendmail messaging system. "It's an irony to me that he should end in a mystery."

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