Friday, July 27, 2007

Inside the High-Tech Hunt for a Missing Silicon Valley Legend

Mark Frauenfelder: Steve Silberman has a story in Wired about Jim Gray, who is lost at sea. He says:
 ~Gray JimgrayThe story is partly about the massive and fascinating DIY effort to try to find Gray and his sailboat -- involving satellites steered over the Pacific, NASA planes, ocean simulators, and 12,000 volunteers analyzing images on Amazon's Mechanical Turk -- but it's also deeply about who Jim Gray was, and why his loss at sea was such a loss for our collective future. Gray was an brilliant, generous, self-deprecating man who routinely gave his expertise away, acting as a mentor to dozens of scientists all over the world, and building enormous resources for amateur science. As I say in the article:

He turned a dorky Windows NT marketing concept ("Scalability Day") into an excuse to build TerraServer, which brought satellite imagery - previously the exclusive domain of intelligence agencies and weather forecasters - to the masses. Then Gray teamed up with astronomer Alex Szalay at Johns Hopkins University to port a massive star-mapping project - the Sloan Digital Sky Survey - to the Web, making the data accessible to professional astronomers, backyard stargazers, and students. Since its debut in 2001, SkyServer has become the most widely used astronomical resource in the world, sparking discoveries about dwarf galaxies, dark matter, and sonic waves triggered by the big bang.

To Gray, both sites were teasers for the coming era of data-centric science made possible by the proliferation of cheap sensing devices, very large data bases, and online interfaces. For life-science researchers, he was like an ambassador from the future who spoke their language. The morning he set sail for the Farallon Islands, he had collaborations under way with oceanographers, soil ecologists, and public health officials.

And he was at least as interested in the scientists themselves as in the petabytes of data they produced. "We connected so deeply," Szalay says. "Sometimes you make these kinds of connections very early in life or in graduate school. But by the time you get to 50, it's rare to meet someone who is so much on the same wavelength. We talked this way, usually several times a day, for eight years."