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Living in The Fourth Paradigm

January 25, 2010 | By Microsoft blog editor

Jim Gray’s untimely death in 2007 marked a profound loss for the global research community.  Jim’s passionate approach to research drove him to explore and test his vision rigorously, to question assumptions at every turn, to relentlessly push the limits of possibility regardless of what was in vogue, or not.  Thankfully, the publication of The Fourth Paradigm, a collection of essays about the increasingly intimate connection between science and computing technology, provides a starting point for ensuring that Jim’s legacy lives on. And every member of the global research community has a role to play in the stewardship of that legacy.


Jim, a Turing Award-winning computer scientist, believed that the computer-aided exploration of scientific data represents the next – and fourth – phase in the evolution of scientific discovery, following the empirical, theoretical and computational phases.  Jim was an expert in databases, the more massive the better. He was also interested in astronomy.  So long before it was a popular pursuit, Jim, a world-renowned database expert, started working with an astronomer to explore how to do new things with data. The result: the creation of a virtual telescope, which you can learn more about at, a key element of which was the bringing together of massive and previously disparate data sets.


That was just the beginning.


As The Fourth Paradigm reveals, data-driven science is a reality in realms that extend beyond exploring the heavens.  As the book also reveals, it is no longer possible to practice scientific research without encountering a lot of data. In fact, data-intensive science is now driving discovery. After his extensive work with scientists in a wide array of specialties, Jim realized their problems centered around data as much as they did computation. Therefore, he concluded, new skills were needed to effectively manipulate, visualize and manage large, often cumbersome amounts of scientific data.


That’s where the challenge for all of us in the research community lies: even though data-driven science has become the norm, there is still a long way to go in terms of ensuring a commonality of easy to use tools and methods that will bring data sets together in order to build a foundation for providing the kinds of insights that lead to discovery and breakthroughs.


And this blog is a place where the global research community can begin building that foundation. Given that we’re only in the earliest years of data-driven discovery, the foundation all of us build together is critical. True to Jim’s insistence upon always looking to the future, The Fourth Paradigm outlines a number of next steps the entire research community can take, the primary one being a call to continue forging solid and meaningful connections between science and computing technology.  How are computing innovations contributing to your research? Are there computing innovations that have yet to be made that could enhance your efforts? If so, what are they? How has interdisciplinary collaboration supported your research? If you develop technology, how do you envision that technology supporting scientific discovery?

This blog is for all members of the global research community, including you. Please make sure your voice is heard.

Tony Hey, Stewart Tansley and Kristin Tolle
Editors, The Fourth Paradigm