I’m no spring chicken so I’m always astounded by the new things I learn. So here I am at the letter “E,” and learning for the first time about Dutch computer science pioneer Edsger Dijkstra who leads off today’s post with this marvelous quote about elegance —
“Why has elegance found so little following? That is the reality of it. Elegance has the disadvantage, if that’s what it is, that hard work is needed to achieve it and a good education to appreciate it.”
Dr. Dijkstra died in 2002 at the age of 72, but he left behind a mathematical and computer science legacy including Dijkstra’s algorithm (solves the problem of finding the shortest path from a point in a graph, the source, to a destination) and the solution to the “dining philosophers problem.” (hint: it involves chopsticks)
Details about his life and a short synopsis of the “dining philosophers” are in NY Times obituary link here.
I am a huge fan of elegance. I suppose everybody is, but what I find most appealing, most enthralling about it is its simplicity. Elegance can be seen in people, things and processes. It is a distillation to the purest essence, yet it requires so much work, so much merciless editing. To appreciate elegance you have to know how to examine your subject. Take your time. Take it in.
And just when I caught my breath in my examination of elegance and Dr. Dijkstra’s work I found another fascinating quote from a 1985 interview he did with Rogier F. van Vlissingen. (The whole interview can be found at the archive link below — it’s a tad lengthy, but fascinating. I’m not fluent in any comp sci language, but Dr. Dijkstra is so elegant in his discourse. He sounds like a guy you’d like to have at your next cook-out.)
But his somewhat prescient reply to functional illiteracy really got to me:
“Oh yes. In Europe a much larger fraction of the population can write. People in America have really suffered from the combination of TV, which makes reading superfluous, and the telephone. A few years ago I was at CalTech and that is a hiqh quality place and everybody recommends it because the students are so bright. A graduate confessed to me—no he did not confess, he just stated it, that he did not care about his writing, since he was preparing himself for an industrial career. Poor industry!”
Excerpt from Interview of Prof. Dr. Edsger W. Dijkstra, Austin, 04–03–1985
©Rogier F. van Vlissingen
Wow! And this was before we became tethered to our devices 24/7/365. But, since I am writing this blog and you are reading it, we’re doing our small part to keep literacy alive!