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Peter Naur

Portrait of Peter Naur taken 1968, courtesy of Robert M. McClure.

Peter Naur, born 1928, Denmark, a pioneer in computer science. His last name is the N in the BNF notation (Backus-Naur form), used in the description of the syntax for most programming languages. He contributed to the creation of the Algol 60 programming language.

He began his career as an astronomer for which he recieved his PhD in 1957, but his encounter with computers led to a change of profession. From 1959 to 1969 he was employed at Regnecentralen, the Danish computing institute, while at the same time giving lectures at the Niels Bohr Institute and the Technical High School of Denmark. From 1969 to 1998 Peter was a professor of computer science at Copenhagen University.

His main areas of inquiry are design, structure and performance of computer programs and algorithms. Areas such as software engineering and software architecture have also been pioneered by Naur. In his book Computing: A Human Activity (1992), which is a collection of his contributions to computer science, he rejects the formalist school of programming that view programming as a branch of mathematics. He does not like being associated with the Backus-Naur form (attributed to him by Donald Knuth) and says that he would prefer it to be called the Backus Normal Form.

Naur dislikes the very term computer science and suggest it be called dataology. This term has also been adopted in most scandinavian countries. (In Denmark as datalogie and in Sweden as datalogi.)

In later years he has also been quite outspoken of the pursuit of science as a whole: Naur can possibly be identified with the empiricist school, that tells that one shall not seek deeper connections between things that manifest themselves in the world, but keep to the observable facts. He has attacked both certain strands of philosophy and psychology from this viewpoint.

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