The Laureates

Copyright © Klaus Tschira Stiftung / Peter Badge

Peter Naur †

Born 25 October 1928, Frederiksberg, Denmark
Died 3 January 2016

Turing Award (2005) “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 Communications of the ACM published a comprehensive obituary reviewing the life and work of Peter Naur.

Peter Naur grew up in a wealthy family. Inspired by the popular science books in the house library, Naur became interested in astronomy at a young age – and the blackout orders in German-occupied Denmark gave him excellent viewing opportunities. At the age of 15, he was working on the mechanical calculators in the observatory at Copenhagen and wrote his first scientific paper. In 1949 he took a degree in Astronomy at the University of Copenhagen (Magister Scientiae), in two years instead of the usual five. He then went to Cambridge (England), where bad weather hindered him from observing the sky and he turned to programming instead (1950-51). His experience with the calculators in the observatory stood him in good stead. After a research stay in the USA (1952-53) in which he again devoted himself to Astronomy, Naur returned to the University of Copenhagen where he completed a Ph.D. in Astronomy in 1957.

Afterwards he joined Copenhagen’s computer centre, the ‘Regnecentralen’. There, he was given the role of an international coordinator who facilitated and improved debate on the programming language Algol. From 1969 until 1999, Naur was a professor at the University of Copenhagen. He coined the Danish (and Swedish) name for his research field of computer science: ‘Datalogi’.

In the last decades, Naur’s interests shifted to philosophy, neurology, and psychology. During the 1990s and 2000s, he wrote several books to break down many prejudices and hidden assumptions researchers are working with. In 2001, he published for instance an “Antiphilosophical Dictionary” to reveal philosophical misapprehensions about mental life.

Peter Naur has received numerous awards, including the GA Hagemann Medal (1963), the Rosenkjaer Award (1966) and the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award (1986).

In the 1960s, Naur contributed decisively to the development of the so-called ‘Algorithmic Language’ Algol. His major contribution was to bring the scientific community together, setting up a newsletter, ALGOL Bulletin, in which the developers of Algol
could discuss their ideas. He also made the authors of Algol adopt a description form invented by John Warner Backus, the father of Fortran.

However, Naur considers his work in psychology and neurology much more important. In these works he builds firmly on the psychology of William James (1842-1910).

In his book “The neural embodiment of mental life by the synapse-state theory”, from 2008, he shows the entire mental life of a person may be understand to happen as excitations in a net having just three kinds of components: nodes, neurons, and synapses. The excitations originate in sense cells. In the net the excitations are transmitted by the neurons and the synapses, the synapses being plastic in the conductivity of their transmissions of excitations.

The ever changing state of excitation of the whole net is experienced by the person as the stream of thought. The nodes are organs for the summation of the excitations, each node being connected to every other node through a synapse. Some of the nodes embody items known by acquaintance by the person. When the person thinks of the item, the node will be strongly excited. This has been confirmed in electronic scannings of brains.

Other nodes and synapses are engaged in controlling muscular activities such as speech. By the plasticity of the synapses the synapse-state theory accounts for the fundamental mental properties of habits and learning.

As a whole the synapse-state theory is a rejection of the cognitivism that has contaminated psychology since 1956.