Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The mysterious disappearance of a #Turing Award winner

Jim Grey at the helm of Tenacious
The Turing Award is computer science's most prestigious honor - the Nobel Prize for computing if you like. Consequently its winners are high-profile people who don't usually vanish. Jim Grey, who was awarded  the Turing Award in 1998 "for seminal contributions to database and transaction processing research and technical leadership in system implementation," is the exception to this rule. He disappeared without a trace on January 28, 2007, aged 63.
   He was sailing his 40' yacht Tenacious, single-handed from San Francisco on a day trip to the nearby Farallon Islands, to scatter the ashes of his recently departed mother. At 10:30 am he called his wife and a few minutes later left a voice mail message for his daughter. At 11:50 am, his smartphone synched with Microsoft's email server for the final time, pinging a cell tower south of San Francisco. The was the last contact with him.
   Despite a massive search that mobilized his wealthy and powerful friends and colleagues in the tech community; including Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Larry Ellison and Jeff Bezos. No trace of him or his yacht have ever been found. Satellites were rerouted to scan the ocean, computer models were created to model the likely position of the yacht but all efforts were in vain.
    There are various hypotheses to explain his disappearance:

  • He fell overboard - but he'd promised his wife he was wearing a safety harness and if so the yacht would have been found later.
  • His yacht was run down by a large commercial vessel in the busy approaches to SF harbor - but there was no wreckage and his EPIRB emergency beacon should have been activated on contact with water.
  • His yacht was holed by submerged logs or another obstruction, like a semi-submerged shipping container - again wreckage should have been found and the beacon activated
  • He was depressed following his mother's death and deliberately scuttled the yacht with himself on board - this might explain the lack of wreckage and the fact the beacon wasn't activated; but his family say he was perfectly happy and content.
  • He sailed off into the sunset and is living on some South Pacific island somewhere - again his family say this would be completely out of character for him and his yacht has never been seen anywhere since.
  • Aliens abducted him and the yacht - there is no evidence aliens actually exist, but if they do and can cross interstellar space they probably figured out how to build large databases (Jim's speciality) a long time ago.
  • Apple kidnapped him so he'd stop working for Microsoft - this does seem extreme even for Steve Jobs.
There's a very good article in Wired about this mystery. I hope for his family's sake that there is a resolution soon.