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4:59pm on Friday, 20th September, 2013:

Dijkstra Anecdote


In the slides I uploaded recently there was a line saying "(tell them your Dijkstra anecdote)". I was asked what this was, and to my surprise discovered I hadn't already blogged it.

So, here's my Dijkstra anecdote.

It took place in the early 1980s when I was doing my PhD. The renowned Dutch computer scientist, Edsger Dijkstra, visited the university to give a seminar. We all thought it would be something about his research, but no, it wasn't. He spent an hour telling us absolutely basic material about Boolean logic. He didn't seem to have a high opinion of George Boole and commented rather sarcastically that it must have been great to live in an era when you could get something as simple as Boolean logic named after yourself. I thought this was rather rich, coming from someone who was famous for having conceived the somewhat obvious Dijkstra's Algorithm. It also didn't go without comment that if Boolean logic was so damned easy, why was he spending an hour telling us all about it?

Dijkstra was not a great public speaker and his talk was among the most boring I've ever attended. However, this led to its being the most entertaining I've ever attended. He was speaking in a large lecture hall, and at one point he turned round to look up at one of his slides, projecting onto the screen behind him. It was too close for him to take it all in, so he took a couple of steps back for a better view and fell right off the stage. It was a drop of well over a metre so he couldn't stop himself, he just keeled over backwards.

The entire audience burst into laughter. If he'd split his skull open, it wouldn't have stopped us. His talk had been so boring that the general view was that he had it coming. It was absolutely hilarious.

Dijkstra hauled himself to his feet, walked back to the steps onto the stage, then continued as if nothing had happened.

That's my Dijkstra anecdote.

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