<- Dijkstra-Childhood and youth

Childhood and youth


Edsger Wybe Dijkstra was born on 11 May 1930 in Rotterdam as the third of four children. His father was an excellent chemist who worked as a chemistry teacher at a secondary school and later became its superintendent. He was very prominent in his field and became president of the Dutch Chemical Society. Although he refused all forms of scientific promotion and dedicated his work to teaching, Dijkstra remembered the following piece of advice given to him by his father: “In the vague idealism after WWII Dutch secondary education deteriorated to such an extent that he forbade me to become a schoolteacher”. (Dijkstra, 1993) His mother was a mathematician who did not work as one. She had a lasting influence on his interests in mathematics: “Her mind was less encyclopaedic than that of my father but very quick; she had a great agility in manipulating formulae and a wonderful gift for finding very elegant solutions, and I learned a lot from her though she had not the patience to be a good teacher.” (Dijkstra, 1993) Later on he wrote: “Formulae have always frightened me. They frightened me, I remember, when I was sixteen and had bought my books for the next year, I was particularly alarmed by my new book on trigonometry, full of sines, cosines, and Greek letters, and asked my mother – a gifted mathematician – whether trigonometry was difficult.


I gratefully acknowledge her wise answer: ‘Oh, no. Know your formulae, and always remember that you are on the wrong track when you need more than five lines.’ In retrospect, I think that no other advice has had such a profound influence on my way of working.” (Dijkstra, 1979)
Referring to his own education and that of his later co-workers, Dijkstra wrote the following: “Our common background was that we came from two of the then most famous secondary schools of our country, van Wijngaarden and I from Gymnasium Erasmianum, and Loopstra and Scholten from the Vossius Gymnasium. I mention this because I firmly believe that that background, which included a solid training in five foreign languages, has had a great influence on the way on which we worked.” (Dijkstra, 1976c)
During his last year at grammar school, Dijkstra considered going to university to study law, hoping to represent his country at the United Nations. When he took his final exams, his grades turned out to be better than most teachers had ever seen at a final examination. Older and wiser people convinced him that it was safer to base his choice on ability rather than on idealism and that it would be a pity if he did not devote himself to science (Dijkstra, 1993).

[Source: People behind Informatics, Laszlo Böszörmenyi and Stefan Podlipnig]


<- Dijkstra-Childhood and youth

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