Edsger Dijkstra

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File:Edsger Dijkstra large.jpg
Portrait of Edsger Dijkstra (courtesy Brian Randell)

Edsger Wybe Dijkstra (Rotterdam, May 11, 1930Nuenen, August 6, 2002) was a Dutch computer scientist. He received the 1972 A. M. Turing Award for fundamental contributions in the area of programming languages.


Dijkstra studied theoretical physics at the University of Leiden, but he quickly realized he was more interested in programming than physics. He worked as a research fellow for Burroughs Corporation in the early 1970s. He worked at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands and later held the Schlumberger Centennial Chair in Computer Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, in the United States. He retired in 2000.

Among his contributions to computer science is the shortest path-algorithm, also known as Dijkstra's algorithm, and the semaphore construct, for coordinating multiple processors and programs.

He was also known for his low opinion of the GOTO statement in computer programming, culminating in the 1968 article "Go To Statement Considered Harmful" [1], regarded as a major step towards the widespread deprecation of the GOTO statement and its effective replacement by control structures such as the while loop. The paper's famous title was not the work of Dijkstra, but of Niklaus Wirth, then editor of Communications of the ACM. Dijkstra was known to be a fan of ALGOL 60, and worked on the team that implemented the first compiler for that language. Dijkstra and Jaap Zonneveld, who collaborated on the compiler, agreed not to shave until the project was completed. Zonneveld eventually shaved off his beard, Dijkstra kept it until his death.

From the 1970s, Dijkstra's chief interest was formal verification. The prevailing opinion at the time was that one should first write a program and then provide a mathematical proof of correctness. Dijkstra objected that the resulting proofs are long and cumbersome, and that the proof gives no insight as to how the program was developed. An alternative method is program derivation, to "develop proof and program hand in hand". One starts with a mathematical specification of what a program is supposed to do and applies mathematical transformations to the specification until it is turned into a program that can be executed. The resulting program is then known to be correct by construction. Much of Dijkstra's later work concerns ways to streamline mathematical argument. In a 2001 interview, he stated a desire for "elegance," whereby the correct approach would be to process thoughts mentally, rather than attempt to render them until they are complete. The analogy he made was to contrast the compositional approaches of Mozart and Beethoven.

Dijkstra was known for his forthright opinions on programming, and for his habit of carefully composing manuscripts with his fountain pen. Many of his notes have since been scanned and are available online.

He died on August 6, 2002 after a long struggle with cancer.


To English ears, Edsger Dijkstra sounds like ed-Star dEX-trah. See Dutch Pronunciation in the External links and References below.

See also

External links and references


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