Edsger Wybe Dijkstra
11 May 1930 -- 6 August 2002
Professor Edsger Wybe Dijkstra, a noted pioneer of the science
and industry of computing, died after a long struggle with cancer
on 6 August 2002 at his home in Neunen, the Netherlands.
Dijkstra was born in 1930 in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, the
son of a chemist father and a mathematician mother. He graduated
from the Gymnasium Erasmianum in Rotterdam and obtained degrees
in mathematics and theoretical physics from the University of
Leyden and a Ph.D. in computing science from the University of
Amsterdam. He worked as a programmer at the Mathematisch Centrum,
Amsterdam, 1952-62; was professor of mathematics, Eindhoven University
of Technology, 1962-1984; and was the Burroughs Corporation research
fellow, 1973-1984. He held the Schlumberger Centennial Chair
in Computing Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, 1984-1999,
and retired as Professor Emeritus in 1999.
Dijkstra is survived by his wife of over forty years, Maria
(Ria) C. Dijkstra Debets, by three children, Marcus J., Femke
E., and computer scientist Rutger M. Dijkstra, and by two grandchildren.
Dijkstra was the 1972 recipient of the ACM Turing Award, often
viewed as the Nobel Prize for computing. He was a member of the
Netherlands Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the
American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Distinguished Fellow
of the British Computer Society. He received the 1974 AFIPS Harry
Goode Award, the 1982 IEEE Computer Pioneer Award, and the 1989
ACM SIGCSE Award for Outstanding Contributions to Computer Science
Education. Athens University of Economics awarded him an honorary
doctorate in 2001. In 2002, the C&C Foundation of Japan recognized
Dijkstra "for his pioneering contributions to the establishment
of the scientific basis for computer software through creative
research in basic software theory, algorithm theory, structured
programming, and semaphores".
Dijkstra is renowned for the insight that mathematical logic
is and must be the basis for sensible computer program construction
and for his contributions to mathematical methodology. He is
responsible for the idea of building operating systems as explicitly
synchronized sequential processes, for the formal development
of computer programs, and for the intellectual foundations for
the disciplined control of nondeterminacy. He is well known for
his amazingly efficient shortest path algorithm and for having
designed and coded the first Algol 60 compiler. He was famously
the leader in the abolition of the GOTO statement from programming.
Dijkstra was a prodigious writer. His entire collection of
over thirteen hundred written works was digitally scanned and
is accessible at http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/EWD. He also
corresponded regularly with hundreds of friends and colleagues
over the years --not by email but by conventional post. He strenuously
preferred the fountain pen to the computer in producing his scholarly
output and letters.
Dijkstra was notorious for his wit, eloquence, and way with
words, such as in his remark "The question of whether computers
can think is like the question of whether submarines can swim";
his advice to a promising researcher, who asked how to select
a topic for research: "Do only what only you can do";
and his remark in his Turing Award lecture "In their capacity
as a tool, computers will be but a ripple on the surface of our
culture. In their capacity as intellectual challenge, they are
without precedent in the cultural history of mankind."
Dijkstra enriched the language of computing with many concepts
and phrases, such as structured programming, separation of concerns,
synchronization, deadly embrace, dining philosophers, weakest
precondition, guarded command, the excluded miracle, and the
famous "semaphores" for controlling computer processes.
The Oxford English Dictionary cites his use of the words "vector"
and "stack" in a computing context.
Dijkstra enjoyed playing Mozart for his friends on his Boesendorfer
piano. He and his wife had a fondness for exploring state and
national parks in their Volkswagen bus, dubbed the Touring Machine,
in which he wrote many technical papers.
Throughout his scientific career, Dijkstra formulated and
pursued the highest academic ideals of scientific rigour untainted
by commercial, managerial, or political considerations. Simplicity,
beauty, and eloquence were his hallmarks, and his uncompromising
insistence on elegance in programming and mathematics was an
inspiration to thousands. He judged his own work by the highest
standards and set a continuing challenge to his many friends
to do the same. For the rest, he willingly undertook the role
of Socrates, that of a gadfly to society, repeatedly goading
his native and his adoptive country by remarking on the mistakes
inherent in fashionable ideas and the dangers of time-serving
compromises. Like Socrates, his most significant legacy is to
those who engaged with him in small group discussions or scientific
correspondence about half-formulated ideas and emerging discoveries.
Particularly privileged are those who attended his reading groups
in Eindhoven and Austin, known as the "Tuesday Afternoon
At Dijkstra's passage, let us recall Phaedo's parting remark
about Socrates: "we may truly say that of all the men of
his time whom we have known, he was the wisest and justest and