Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Meeting My Doppelgänger (Googlegänger)

One of my teachable moments in information retrieval (IR) is about uncommon words tending to be the most discriminating and leading to the best results in searching. I am hardly the first person to come up with this idea, as IR research pioneer Gerald Salton demonstrated its value and published about it in the 1970s [1]. I do, however, provide a modern example of it, which is demonstrated by searching (or Googling) on my name. My last name, in particular, is spelled in a somewhat unusual manner, as most people spell it Hirsh, Hersch, or Hirsch. Combined with my presence on the Web, with many links to my major pages (another teachable moment about the Google PageRank algorithm [2]!), I have never had to pay anyone for search engine optimization (SEO), and Googling “Bill Hersh” or “William Hersh” lists most of my key pages right at the top of the search output.

Early in the days of Google, I discovered another William Hersh, who was also in academia. I also noted him in PubMed (MEDLINE) author searches on our name (hersh w). I knew he was a Chemistry professor at Queens College in New York. Apparently over this nearly two decades, he knew of me as well. We both contemplated reaching out to each other, but neither of us ever did.

About a month ago, I received an email from a colleague of his at Queens College that was sent to my Gmail account by mistake. I replied to the email, telling the sender it was sent to me in error and probably meant for his co-worker. He sent my message to Bill, who reached out to me to apologize for the error. This started a conversation, with each of us describing how long we knew about each other. (He was even once invited to serve on an NIH review panel when they thought they were inviting me!). He also told me that a former student of his from years ago, upon finding me, told him that “that my googleganger is my doppelgänger.” (I have to admit I had to go Google the word doppelgänger to be certain of its meaning.)

We both noted we were academic graybeards, and after some discussion found out that our grandfathers emigrated from different cities in Poland (his Czestochowa and mine Lodz). In addition, like many people with last name Hersh, our grandfathers Anglicized their last names from Hershkowitz. They also both experienced anti-semitism in Eastern Europe, part of their motivation for emigrating to the US.

I also told Bill that I was going to be in New York City in late October, and we set a day and time to meet for lunch. We had that meeting yesterday, and it was enjoyable to trade stories of our somewhat common ancestry, our careers, and our families. My family got a kick out of my telling them that Bill too drives a Toyota Prius. Here is a picture of us together:

It was indeed fun to find Bill, meet him, and reflect on how our meeting was made possible by the Web and IR (my field of research). I do hope to keep in touch with him and meet him again.


1. Salton, G, Yang, CS, et al. (1975). A theory of term importance in automatic text analysis. Journal of the American Society for Information Science. 26: 33-44.
2. Brin, S and Page, L (1998). The anatomy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine. Computer Networks and ISDN Systems. 30: 107-117.

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