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ACM Opinion

The Man Who Carried Computer Science on His Shoulders

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Edsger W. Dijkstra

1972 ACM A.M. Turing Award winner Edsger W. Dijkstra.

Credit: The University of Texas at Austin

Krzysztof Apt is a Fellow at the Center for Mathematics and Computer Science in Amsterdam and Professor Emeritus at the University of Amsterdam.

The first time I met Edsger Wybe Dijkstra in 1975, Dijkstra was 45 years old. The most prestigious award in computer science, the ACM Turing Award, had been conferred on him three years earlier. I was a postdoc newly arrived from communist Poland with a background in mathematical logic and a plan to stay in the West. I left the meeting with two book recommendations and a copy of a recent research article Dijkstra had written. He also suggested that I learn the programming language Pascal.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Dijkstra was probably the most discussed scientist in his field. His work and ideas shaped the emerging field of computer science like few others. It was over the course of his career that computer science became a respectable and established discipline.

Dijkstra was also a most striking and unusual person.

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