Beyond what we imagined – Interview with Peter Naur

Peter Naur at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum 2015. Photo: Tobias Maier (CC BY-SA)
Peter Naur at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum 2015. Photo: Tobias Maier (CC BY-SA)

Andrew Carmichael, guest blogger HLF15. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to speak with Peter Naur, who was awarded the Turing Award for “fundamental contributions to programming language design and the definition of Algol 60, to compiler design, and to the art and practice of computer programming.” The following is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Andrew Carmichael: My familiarity with your work comes from your work on context free grammars, but in preparation for this interview, I was reading up on some of your other accomplishments. What struck me is that I was previously unaware of your achievements as an astronomer.

What I would like to know is: do you still have any involvement in this field, but especially I want to know if you still make time in your day to enjoy the night sky? I ask you this question because, being from Canada, I have fairly good access to dark skies. I try to make time for myself and my family to enjoy the night sky which is a privilege not everyone is able to enjoy.

Peter Naur: Nowadays, no I don’t.  Really, my great experience with watching the stars was way back during the war when we had a blackout in Copenhagen.  Even in the city we had a beautiful dark sky, and that’s a long time ago, you know.  That was my great period for observing with the naked eye – I learned the constellations – then using a telescope, I could make useful observations even as a young amateur astronomer.

AC:  One of my favourite places to go is a large park near where I live.  It’s a very large land mass.  You can canoe out to the middle of the lake – it’s just beautiful.  It’s a real privilege.

PN: Nowadays people can’t get access to that sort of thing, but really my interest in astronomy drifted into computer science.  I got fascinated by the idea of doing calculations.  So I quickly – even in my teens… I learned the techniques for calculations for comets – newly discovered comets – which was really well supported by the observatory in Copenhagen because they received news by telegram from all over the world about newly discovered objects.  I continued that sort of work for five years, and then I drifted into formal education with physics.  Einstein’s theories and that; very fascinating to me.

AC: As I said, for myself as a practicing computer programmer, it’s a tremendous honour to be here at the forum.  I can only imagine for the student researches, it’s a tremendous opportunity, to get some time with the laureates.  I want to know, for the HLF – what’s in it for you?  Specifically I’m wondering if there is anything this week that you are looking forward to or excited about.

PN:  Well I like to communicate.  I need to communicate.  My latest discoveries, which are in psychology, I hope to discuss with other researchers.

AC: I’ve been a professional computer programmer for a little over ten years.  I started my education in that field maybe… 15 years ago at a technical school.  I’ve enjoyed good work since – certainly thanks to some of the laureates here who helped make it possible for average practitioners to be very successful in the field – thank you for that!

For me, something that surprises me is how things have changed since I’ve gotten into the field.  You know, when I went to college, I had a computer, a 500 MHz computer, around the year 2000.  I think it’s amazing that now my mobile phone is approximately – off the top of my head – twice as powerful as the computer I went to school with.

PN:  That increase in speed and capacity, that is really a hardware situation which is utterly incredible completely beyond what we would have imagined 50 years ago.  Way beyond.

Of course for quite a number of years, I have not really been working with computing at all.  My greatest time for working with computers was probably 1950 to 1970, when I started at Cambridge University with the EDSAC, then developing the programming language AGOL60.  That was in the 60s – that’s when I was really working in computing.

Then I got to be professor of computing at the university of Denmark.  Then it was all teaching.  I wanted to understand all the questions about language.  In this way I drifted into this sort of psychology.

AC: Now based on the fact that you were at the beginning of field of computing, is there something that really surprises you that hasn’t happened yet?  Something perhaps you might have expected we might have in 2015 that never came?

PN:  No, what has happened is way beyond my expectations.  Some of the trouble I think is that many applications are misguided.  Much of the public applications of computers are misguided, and that’s a problem that I don’t do much about, but that I consider to be a major problem really – that computer supported systems have gotten to be poor quality.

AC:  Is there anything about computing today that has you excited?

PN:  You see, my more recent uses of computers have been restricted.  I use a computer to write articles and I use it for music – for producing printed music.  I am highly interested in music.  I’m writing music for my friends to play and it’s nice to produce on the computer which is, of course, a modest application, but very useful.

With the advancements comes some confusion.  People have to spend large part of their lives adjusting to the so-called ‘improvements’ to the system, which are mostly quite unnecessary.  You have to have a new computer every year because everything changes superficially.  I think that is very shocking; bad development.

AC:  I think we can agree that for many people the mobile phone is their primary computer.

PN:  I’m sure it is.  It isn’t for me; I don’t own one.

AC:  I think they are handy.  Once you access to it, you don’t want to give it up.  I think this is interesting – all the different phones have different hardware architectures which is problematic…

PN:  It’s all commercial interest.

AC:  It’s good for employment of people like me, so I won’t be complaining. I’d put it to you that today, computer programming remains difficult to learn.  I’m wondering how you foresee the learning process changing, perhaps becoming easier over time.

PN:  The design of complex data system is extremely complicated and very difficult.  Very few people do it well.  Mostly the systems that are produced are very poor quality and have defects.

AC:  Personally, I think as computing power increases, the requirement that the software be excellent is lower in a sense.  Perhaps there is less concern for system resources, etc.  If we’ve got many gigabytes of RAM, it’s not such a worry.  It’s difficult to comprehend the vastness of resources available to us, which makes it easier to waste.

PN:  It’s beyond any imagination, yet it doesn’t really solve the problem.  The problem is that the complexity of the systems… we must have an ambition to learn and understand.  We build systems that don’t fit to the real requirements of the people.  The people don’t have a chance to state their requirements for the software systems they use.

AC:  Any predictions for the future of computing that you’d like to share?

PN:  I have no idea.  None whatsoever.  I’m afraid it will just continue in the sad direction.  These millions of computers are just being used for superficial entertainment.

AC: Yes, these days people watch television on the computer, etc.

PN: You see, I hardly watch television.  I like old fashioned movies and operas and films.  Daily entertainment, however, and daily news – I’m not interested.

You can read more about Peter Naur on the Heidelberg Laureate Forum website.


Andrew Carmichael is a professional software developer with more than ten years of industry experience.  Andrew became interested in computing at a young age and has recently changed disciplines from working on large desktop applications to mobile application development.

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  1. I attended the 2014 HLF as a young researcher and had a wonderful long conversation over lunch with Peter Naur and two other attendees. I enjoyed his simplicity and learning how he got inspired throughout his career. I’m looking forward to watching his lecture on-line once it’s available!

  2. Interesting conversation with Mr. Naur! His perspective on cellphones and his opinions about the designs of complex data systems are a little different that I would have expected. The use of computers for “superficial entertainment” is probably true for billions (?!) of users – that’s a bit frightening. Or impressive…..I guess it depends on your perspective.

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