An interview with Peter Naur


Spring 2011


What an absolutely cool guy!

— Dennis Shasha,
New York University


Fascinating... the interview is a very worthwhile contribution to documenting the history of the field, and will be of strong interest both to computer scientists and to professional historians.

— Robert Harper,
Carnegie Mellon University



Besides focusing on Dijkstra's writings and accomplishments, I regularly conduct in-depth interviews with contemporaries of Dijkstra, including Blaauw, de Bruijn, Hoare, Liskov, Naur, van der Poel, Wirth, and Zonneveld. The interviews help achieve a richer, contextual understanding of Dijkstra's legacy and the community of interpretation in which he operated and helped shape. Each interview centers on the interviewee's research contributions and, by doing so, sometimes also spontaneously addresses the question as to how Dijkstra's work was received and how the interviewee's research and practice were affected by it.  Some of my interviews have or will be made public. My interview with Tony Hoare has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Logic and Computation. My longer interview with Peter Naur has been published by Lonely Scholar.


Peter Naur

I visited Peter Naur a couple of times in the spring of 2011 at his home in Gentofte, Denmark. Naur was a very close friend of Dijkstra during the early 1960s when they were both working on ALGOL. Dijkstra and his family visited Naur's family in Denmark and, vice versa, Naur visited Dijkstra in Amsterdam. During the 1960s, their friendship gradually ended — to put it gently. Documenting the later differences between Dijkstra and Naur is not a question of right or wrong, it is a matter of explicating each other's research agenda and the extent to which they understood each other's agenda. In this respect, my aspirations come close to those of the late Mike Mahoney who has written about research agendas in computing following his primary dissertation adviser Thomas Kuhn [Mahoney2011].

Furthermore, it seems that Dijkstra was, like so many others, manifesting himself politically in academia during the 1960s. If this presumption is correct, then, again, it would be a methodological mistake to simply ignore such developments. It is by acknowledging (as opposed to eschewing) Dijkstra's disputes with colleagues at home and abroad, such as van der Poel and Naur, that historians of science can obtain an all-encompassing picture of Dijkstra's scholarly legacy. For example, by elaborating on Naur‘s opposing views towards what he considered to be Dijkstra‘s dogmas, the software engineer can obtain a better understanding of Dijkstra‘s very own research objectives.

My booklet on Naur is available now from Amazon and many other bookstores. My visits to Copenhagen were made at my own expense and I hope to recuperate some of it. In Tony Hoare's words: "let's face it, research doesn't come for free"! [DaylightJLC]


[Mahoney2011]  M.S. Mahoney, Histories of Computing. Harvard University Press, 2011.

[DaylightJLC]  E.G. Daylight, `From Mathematical Logic to Programming-Language Semantics — a Discussion with Tony Hoare'. Accepted for publication in the Journal of Logic and Computation.

See also the book's page at Lonely Scholar.