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Edsger Dijkstra, Computer Scientist

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Wikimedia Commons

In our Retrobituaries series, we highlight interesting people who are no longer with us. Today let's explore the life of Edsger Dijkstra, who died at 72 in 2002. 

If you’ve used a computer or smart phone in the last few decades, you’ve come into contact with the work of Edsger Dijkstra. Since his death in 2002, his research in the field of computer science has in many ways only grown more important. Here are a few things you didn’t know about his life and his science. 

If you took his computer science class, you probably didn’t touch a computer.

Professor Dijkstra once said, “Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes,” and he taught his courses accordingly. He was a proponent of elegance in mathematical proofs, whereby puzzles are solved with efficiency and aesthetic sensitivity.

Grades were determined by the final exam, which was neither written on a piece of paper nor typed on a computer. Rather, students were given individual oral examinations in his office or at his home. The conversational exams lasted hours at a time, and students were asked how they might prove various mathematical propositions. They were then challenged to write out their proofs on a chalkboard. After the exam, students were offered a beer if they were of age, or a cup of tea, if they were not. 

He didn’t use email. Or a word processor.

Dijkstra was famous for his general rejection of personal computers. Instead of typing papers out using a word processor, he printed everything in longhand. He wrote well over a thousand essays of significant length this way, and for most of his academic career, they proliferated by ditto machine and fax. Each essay was given a number and prefixed with his initials, EWD.

Students who emailed Dijkstra were asked to include a physical mailing address in the letter. His secretary would print the message, and he would respond by hand.

Computers weren’t the only technology he shunned. He refused to use overhead projectors, calling them “the poison of the educational process.”

 

Use Google Maps? You can thank Dijkstra.

Among his profound contributions to computer science is a solution to the “single source shortest-path problem.” The solution, generally referred to as Dijkstra’s algorithm, calculates the shortest distance between a source node and a destination node on a graph. (Here is a visual representation.) The upshot is that if you’ve ever used Google Maps, you’re using a derivation of Dijkstra’s algorithm. Similarly, the algorithm is used for communications networks and airline flight plans. 

He “owned” a nonexistent company.

In many of his more humorous essays, he described a fictional company of which he served as chairman. The company was called Mathematics, Inc., and sold mathematical theorems and their maintenance. Among the company’s greatest triumphs was proving the Riemann hypothesis (which it renamed the Mathematics, Inc. Theorem), and then it unsuccessfully attempted to collect royalties on all uses of the mathematical conjecture in the real world. Evidence was never given of the proof, of course, because it was a trade secret. Mathematics Inc. claimed to have a global market share of 75 percent.

He was the first programmer in the Netherlands.

In the 1950s, his father suggested that he attend a Cambridge course on programming an Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator, or EDSAC. Dijkstra did, believing that theoretical physics (which he was studying at the time at Leiden University) might one day rely upon computers. The following year, he was offered a job at Mathematisch Centrum in Amsterdam, making him the first person in the Netherlands to be employed as something called a “programmer.” (“A programmer?” he recalled of the moment he was offered the position. “But was that a respectable profession? For after all, what was programming? Where was the sound body of knowledge that could support it as an intellectually respectable discipline?” He was then challenged by his eventual employer to make it a respectable discipline.) 

This would later cause problems. On his marriage application in 1957, he was required to list his profession. Officials rejected his answer—”Programmer”—stating that there was no such job.

Previously on Retrobituaries: Albert Ellis, Pioneering Psychologist. See all Retrobituaries here.

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History
When Math Discoveries Led to Banned Numbers
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The literature world has seen more than its share of controversy. The best stories tend to provoke the strongest reactions—both positive and negative—in readers, which is why so many classic books have been banned at one point or another. But even a more objective field like math isn’t immune to conflict. In its new video, TED-Ed rounds up the numbers that caused such a stir when they were introduced that they were banned in math circles.

One of the earliest examples comes from ancient Greece. A mathematician named Hippasus was having trouble solving certain equations with fractions and whole numbers alone, so he came up with irrational numbers to make these values easier to express. The ruling school of thought at the time dictated that everything in nature could be explained elegantly with the numbers that already existed. Threatened by Hippasus’s new notion, his fellow mathematicians rejected the irrational numbers and had him exiled.

Other numbers have been banned for legal reasons. When Arab traders brought their positional number system, which included zero, to Italy in the Middle Ages, Florence banned it from record-keeping fearing that they would be easier to forge than Roman numerals. The Arabic way of counting also led to the rise of negative numbers, which were regarded with disdain by many experts into the 19th century. For more banned numbers, including some that are prohibited today, check out the full story below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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Euclid
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Live Smarter
An Ex-Google Engineer Just Reinvented the Measuring Cup
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Euclid

Recognizing a problem most people didn’t even know they had, former Google and Facebook software engineer Joshua Redstone has made a bold claim for his recent Kickstarter venture: He’s developed a better measuring cup.

According to the Boston Business Journal, Redstone spent four years tinkering with a solution to something that had long annoyed him as an amateur chef: Traditional measuring cups, which are stocky and not very well tapered, don’t do a great job of accurately measuring their own contents. Redstone believes the shape of a cup determines its success, particularly when a cook overfills a liquid or solid by a tiny amount. The smaller the volume, the more the problem is magnified.

Euclid

Redstone’s cup, Euclid, resolves the issue. According to the Kickstarter page: “With traditional measuring cups, the smaller the amount, the harder it is to measure accurately. The culprit? The shape. Straight sides magnify errors when measuring lower down in the cup. Some have tried to solve this problem with conical measuring cups, but their results fall short of Euclid’s by up to 60 percent. Euclid is the only measuring cup with a mathematically optimal, tapered design for consistent accuracy across amounts.”

Euclid is just about ready to overshoot its $30,000 Kickstarter goal. Backers can pay $24 for the cup now, or wait until it’s available at retail for a slightly higher price to be determined. The cup is scheduled for release in May 2018.

[h/t Boston Business Journal]

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