Computer Science Illuminated, Third Edition


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Chapter 8: High-Level Programming Languages

Edsger Dijkstra

Every field of human endeavor has its leading contributors who are acclaimed for their theoretical insights, extensions of fundamental ideas, or innovative changes that have redefined the subject. Just as Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, and Hayden ring true in the world of classical music, and the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and the Who stand out in rock-'n'-roll, Edsger Dijkstra has a place reserved for him in the computer language hall of fame.

Born to a Dutch chemist in Rotterdam in 1930, Dijkstra grew up with a formalist predilection toward the world. While studying at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, he attended a summer course on programming in Cambridge, England, and became fascinated with programming. He took a part-time job at the Mathematical Centre in Amsterdam in 1952, and he continued to work there after his graduation. He came to the United States in the early 1970s as a research fellow for Burroughs Corporation, and in September of 1984 he came to The University of Texas at Austin, where he held the Schlumberger Centennial Chair in Computer Sciences. He retired in November 1999.

One of the Dijkstra's most famous contributions to programming was his strong advocacy of structured programming principles. Dijkstra observed that programs written with goto statements often turned into a rat's nest of jumping back and forth among disorganized, ad hoc sections of programs, making the programs difficult to understand even for the authors-- not to mention the colleagues who might later be asked to maintain the program. Dijkstra argued that the goto was not the be-all and end-all of control structures, and he strongly encouraged the use of iterative, or looping, constructs that clearly bracket the scope of branching in a program and effectively self document the program. Dijkstra claimed that adhering to these structured programming principles would make programs far easier to understand and maintain and less likely to contain errors.

Beyond his clear theoretical contributions, Dijkstra is an interesting character in the computing world. He has developed a reputation for speaking his mind, often in inflammatory or dramatic ways that most of us can't get away with. For example, Dijkstra once remarked that "the use of COBOL cripples the mind; its teaching should therefore be regarded as a criminal offence." Not one to single out only one language for his criticism, he also said that "it is practically impossible to teach good programming to students who have had a prior exposure to BASIC; as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration." Some people find his message cogent and feel that his manner is politically necessary to make his point. Others, aware of the historical development of languages and the contexts in which they were designed, appreciate his message but find his manner a bit strident.

Besides his work in language design, Dijkstra is also noted for his work in proofs of program correctness. The field of program correctness is an application of mathematics to computer programming. Researchers are trying to construct a language and proof technique that might be used to certify unconditionally that a program will perform according to its specifications--entirely free of bugs. Needless to say, whether your application is customer billing or flight control systems, this claim would be extremely valuable.

In 1972 the Association for Computing Machinery acknowledged Dijkstra's rich contributions to the field by awarding him the distinguished Turing Award. The citation for the award read:

Edsger Dijkstra was a principal contributor in the late 1950's to the development of the ALGOL, a high level programming language which has become a model of clarity and mathematical rigor. He is one of the principal exponents of the science and art of programming languages in general, and has greatly contributed to our understanding of their structure, representation, and implementation. His fifteen years of publications extend from theoretical articles on graph theory to basic manuals, expository texts, and philosophical contemplations in the field of programming languages.

In 1989 SIGCSE, the Special Interest Group for Computer Science Education, honored him with its award for Outstanding Contributions to Computer Science Education.

Dijkstra and his wife returned to the Netherlands where he found that he had only months to live. He said that he wanted to retire in Austin, Texas, but to die in the Netherlands. Dijkstra died on August 6, 2002.

In March 2003, the following email was sent to the distributed computing community:

This is to announce that the awad formerly known as the "PODC Influential-Paper Award" has been renamed the "Edsger W. Dijkstra Prize in Distributed Computing" after the late Edsger W. Dijkstra, a pioneer in the area of distributed computing. His foundational work on concurrency primitives (such as the semaphore), concurrency problems (such as mutual exclusion and deadlock), reasoning about concurrent systems, and self-stabilization comprises one of the most important supports upon which the field of distributed computing is built. No other individual has had a larger influence on research in principles of distributed computing.

Dijkstra was known for many concise and witty sayings. One that all who study computing should ponder is that "Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes."

Additional Links

To read a touching memorial from the University of Texas at Austin, please click here.

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