Three years ago next month, Jim Gray sailed out of San Francisco Bay aboard his C&C 40 >Tenacious, bound for the Farallon Islands to scatter the ashes of his dead mother at sea. Conditions were utterly benign. Gray made cellphone calls to his wife and daughter, described the dolphins playing in the water around him, and then… just disappeared.
I remember following the amazingly intensive search for the missing sailor, some of which was conducted online, with thousands of concerned persons scrutinizing real-time images of the search area over the Internet. You can read about that search in detail in this great article that was published in Wired Magazine.
The reason the search was so intensive was because Gray was truly an amazing guy. He revolutionized the field of database software and made possible many features of modern life we now take for granted–like ATM machines, online commerce and ticketing, and comprehensive search engines like Google.
At the time of his disappearance Gray was doing research for Microsoft, and now Microsoft has published a tome to honor his memory entitled The Fourth Paradigm: Data-Intensive Scientific Discovery. I read about it in today’s New York Times, and though I doubt my geek glands are anywhere near large enough for me to digest the text myself, the description in the Times got me thinking.
Gray’s big goal in life was to make the flood of data (scientific and otherwise) that now threatens to overwhelm us both available to and intelligible to as many people as possible. In a microcosmic way, we see this process playing out on boats today. Think of all the data we hope to analyze while running a boat, particularly a sailboat, where important environmental factors like wind angle and speed and current and future weather conditions are so critical. Blend in other factors like depth soundings, water temperature, tidal currents, radar imagery, engine temperature and RPMs, satellite data, VHF chatter, fuel consumption rates, etc., etc., etc. and you might quickly get a headache. In the past we could process all this data only in disparate ways and much of it was under-utilized or even ignored. But now, thanks to modern electronics and software, we can more easily get a handle on all this stuff and can use it to sail our boats both faster and more safely.
The story also got me wondering: what kind of electronics did Gray carry on his boat??? Were there any custom features he had designed? Maybe so, but in the end, sadly, they could not save him from whatever it was that overwhelmed him.
Photo by Joel Bartlett