People behind Informatics

Panel and Exhibition in Memory of

Edsger W. Dijkstra, Ole-Johan Dahl and Kristen Nygaard



Laszlo Böszörmenyi

Department of Information Technology, University Klagenfurt


“... it is the human being alone whose past is the object of our discourse and questioning: this enigmatic being which embraces our own natural-lusty and supernatural-wretched existence and whose mystery understandably is the Alpha and Omega of all our discourse and questioning, lends anguish and fire to all our discourse, urgency to all our questioning.[1]” (Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers)


“Do only what only you can do.”




Science is done by people. No matter how trivial this sounds, this is often forgotten, especially in the case of technical sciences such as informatics[2]. In this book we attempt to give a short overview of the life and scientific work of three great computing scientists: Ole-Johan Dahl, Edsger W. Dijkstra and Kristen Nygaard. All three were born around the beginning of the 1930s and died in 2002. All three were among the brightest stars of early informatics (or computing science).


All three were strong individuals with very different views and styles. However, there are also a number of similarities among them, for example Dahl and Nygaard’s working together for decades. Thus all three shared the trait of consistently looking for ever better solutions without compromise. All three had a very high level of general education as well. Dahl and Dijkstra were not only enthusiastic listeners of classical music; both of them played the piano at a high level too. Nygaard was very interested in photography and especially in social and political issues. This suggests that a wide range of interests is a good foundation for unprecedented results in science, even when the actual scientific work is focused.


Human individuality cannot be captured; it can, at most, be felt. It seems to be easier to get a precise feeling for strong individuals than for others. We know this phenomenon well in literature or the arts. When we read the books of Thomas Mann or listen to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, we start to develop such a ‘well-shaped’ feeling that their works become impossible to confuse with the works of others. Even when an artist hides himself behind a role, as Thomas Mann did in his novel ‘Der Erwählte’[3] – which he wrote in the style of a medieval Irish monk – it is still clearly a work by Thomas Mann. In contrast, the individuality of authors of poor works is hidden by clichés.


In the case of scientists, especially in the field of technical sciences such as informatics, it seems to be much more difficult to find the individual styles of the human beings behind their work. Why is this so?


One relatively obvious reason is that modern science (since the time of Descartes) strives for objectivity, for independence from figures of authority (such as Aristotle or Augustine were for medieval science). On the one hand, striving for objectivity freed science to an unbelievable extent, leading it to new horizons. On the other hand, due to this development, the individuals behind science disappeared almost entirely from the focus of interest. It is often forgotten, however, that even the most objective science must be carried out by someone. There is no way to avoid individual human contribution.


A second, possibly less obvious reason is that writers and composers intend to create works that ‘speak’, that say something – even if, as in the case of music, we cannot express in words what it is they want to say. A piece of software, on the other hand, is not written to be understood and felt, but to be used for practical purposes. The creator of a piece of software is much more hidden than a composer because the purpose of the software is so different from that of a piece of music. Even in their writings, scientists mostly strive for an objective, even impersonal style. As Dijkstra put it:


“Mathematical results are published quite openly and are taught quite explicitly; but how mathematics is done remains largely hidden. To publish besides the results the way (and the order!) in which they were reached, to mention blind alleys as well, to mention whether the solution was found in three months or twenty minutes [...] all this is regarded as ‘unscientific’, and therefore, ‘bad style’. (Just try to include such remarks in your next publication: if the referees don’t object to them, the editor will!)” (Dijkstra, Homo Cogitans, Personal note EWD533, November 1975)


This makes it extremely difficult to get a precise feeling – in a similar sense to Goethe when he spoke about precise phantasy in the arts – for the individuals behind their work. Does it follow from this that the people behind technical sciences are uninteresting and unimportant? We doubt it. We are looking for the individual behind the work, not the ‘private person’ with the habits of ‘everyman’, but the creative individual, the ‘genius’ acting behind the scientist’s work.


The panel and exhibition should help us achieve a better understanding of the many facets of computer science and also to acquire a deeper insight into our own way of giving shape to our profession and to our life.



Basic questions and participants of the panel


1.         Who was Dijkstra? Who was Dahl? Who was Nygaard?

2.         Can we find them behind their work?

3.         Why was Dijkstra so keen on mathematical beauty and strength? On safety, based on mathematical proofs? On simplicity? According to Schumacher’s “Small is beautiful”, simplicity is the main characteristics for “constructive sciences”. Can we say that Disjktra’s view of computer science is that of a constructive science? Can this be the reason for the great but not unlimited success of his view?

4.         Why were Dahl and Nygaard interested in creating a description language for simulating quite different and mathematically intractable processes of life? Can we say that this view regards computer science as a “descriptive” science? Can this be the reason for the success of their approach beyond computer science?

5.         What should we learn about them beyond their well-known work? Can we learn from studying their youth, their early interests, talents, their successes and fiascos?

6.         They were obviously three unique individuals. Did they have some common characteristics?

7.         Do computer scientists have common characteristics, common talents?


On the panel, colleagues and friends will speak about Dijkstra, Dahl and Nygaard. Expected participants are: Jürg Gutknecht (Switzerland), C.A.R. Hoare (Great Britain), Christian Lengauer (Germany), Ole Lehrmann Madsen (Denmark), Bertrand Meyer (Switzerland, France), Jayadev Misra (USA) and Niklaus Wirth (Switzerland). Moderators: Ann Dünki (Switzerland) and Laszlo Böszörmenyi (Austria). The conversation should be initiated by some questions, and should lead to a free-ranging discussion. The questions will rely on the basic questions above, however, they will be more concrete.


Timetable of the panel


I. 18:00 - 18:30(45)

1.            String quartet - 1 (5-8 minutes)

2.            Introductory words, motivation (LB, 5-8 minutes)

3.            Introduction of the panelists (AD and LB, 5-8 minutes)

4.            Jürg Gutknecht speaks about Dahl (5-8 minutes)

5.            Jayadev Misra speaks about Dijkstra (5-8 minutes)

6.            Ole Lehrmann Madsen speaks about Nygaard (5-8 minutes)

II. 18:30(45) - 19:15

   Free conversation

III. 19:15 - 19:30

1.            Closing the Session and Opening of the Exhibition (AD+LB, 5-8 minutes)

2.            String quartet - 2 (5-8 minutes)


Detailed information about the exhibition:


[1] Translated by Franz Kuna and Hans Köberl.

[2] We call the science of computing either informatics (as Nygaard preferred to call it) or computing science (as Dijkstra suggested), and not ‘computer science’ as usual in the USA.

[3] The Chosen