Alex Szalay is an international leader in astronomy, cosmology, the science of big data, and data-intensive computing. As an astrophysicist, he has made significant contributions to our understanding of the structure formation and on the nature of the dark matter in the universe. He has also led the development of computer architectures that are creating a new paradigm of data-intensive science across multiple fields.
More than 90 percent of the world’s data has been created in the last two years alone, and each day we add 2.5 quintillion bytes more. “We’ve reached a point where we can’t continue storing and analyzing data as we’ve done before. It’s time for a different approach,” said Alexander Szalay, founding director of the Institute for Data Intensive Engineering and Science at Johns Hopkins, who was appointed as an internally-selected Bloomberg Distinguished Professor in 2015.
Szalay, who has been on the Hopkins faculty since 1989, says his interest in big data began in the early 1990s, when his “day job was entirely astrophysics,” and he became a key contributor to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a collaboration of 11 institutions that has created the most detailed three-dimensional maps of the universe ever made.
Since then, he has collaborated with Microsoft computer scientist Jim Gray and colleagues at Johns Hopkins to build scientific databases “that changed the way we do astronomy” and democratized access to supercomputer simulations.
It’s a model that other disciplines want to emulate. Szalay, who is a professor in the Department of Computer Science as well as an Alumni Centennial Professor of Astronomy, has already helped build a similar database for radiation oncology, and is now collaborating on designing one for high-throughput genomics. His methods, which can be used across the physical and life sciences, are creating “a new paradigm of data-intensive science.” The program, Szalay believes, will help the university become “a major player” in the world of high-performance computing.
Through the Bloomberg Distinguished Professorship, Szalay is also teaching a new class in data science, a mix of statistics, computer science, and basic sciences that he thinks will become the fundamental language used by the next generation of scientists.
“The Bloomberg Distinguished Professorships break down a lot of barriers between different schools,” Szalay says. “The ‘One University’ slogan couldn’t be recognized in a nicer way.”
Szalay is a Corresponding Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2004 he received an Alexander Von Humboldt Award in Physical Sciences, in 2007 the Microsoft Jim Gray Award. In 2008 he became Doctor Honoris Causa of the Eotvos University, Budapest. In 2016, he received Microsoft Research’s Outstanding Collaborator Award.
He completed all academic training in Hungary, receiving his B.Sc. in Physics from Kossuth University, and M.Sc. in Theoretical Physics and Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Eötvös University in Budapest. He was a research associate at the University of California, Berkeley and The University of Chicago, a staff scientist at Fermilab, and a professor at Eötvös University prior to joining Hopkins.