JF Ptak Science Books
I think that I'd like to start a new category of observation for this blog--complicated work explained with celebrated brevity and clarity. Earlier today I wrote a post on a 24-page effort by the great polymath and mathematical titan, Henri Poincare, describing his Newtonian-clad version of relativity, and it certainly classifies as a superior effort in a short, clarifying description of a wide and complex topic. Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is another--it is considerably longer though incredibly short for the work that it undertakes, ending with a sentence that has become an independently-standing aphorism, "Whereof one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence".
But for right now, I'd like to look at a splendidly short work.
Much is owed to people like Peter Naur1, a Dane who made an enormous contribution in the development of computer languages by being the lead developer in the creation of ALGOL. As a matter of fact Naur (b. 1928) received the computing world’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize (“highest distinction in Computer science")–the Turing Award–for this work, receiving the high honor in 2005. The official short description–again in the manner of the Nobel Committee– was “(f)or fundamental contributions to programming language design and the definition of ALGOL 60, to compiler design, and to the art and practice of computer programming”.
This all came to mind while looking through Report on the Algorithmic Language ALGOL 60 (published in the Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery, May 1960) which was edited by Naur. ALGOL was the creation of 40+ minds, twelve of whom were listed contributing to this paper-–it is a great testament to Naur to control all of that input, producing a superb fifteen page report of great brevity, beautiful logic and utter accessibility. Perhaps If the team was given a lot more time Naur could’ve made his work even more succinct, but I really doubt it. It is written in a language that is somewhat foreign to me, but I can certainly appreciate the way the work is structured its precise manner of presentation. It seems to me a hallmark of communicating complicated ideas in a small space.
1. NAUR, P. (with J. W. Backus, F. L. Bauer, J. Green, C. Katz, J. Mccarthy, P. Naur, A. J. Perlis, H. Rutishauser, K. Samelson, B. Vauquois, J. H. Wegstein, A. Wijngaarden,M. Woodger) . Report on the algorithmic language ALGOL 60. Offprint: Communications of the ACM, May, 1960, vol 3, #5. 25x21cm, pp 299-314. Rare. There is evidently an two months earlier-but-not-circulated report (no citation for this), as well as a later printing appearing in Numerische Mathematik, 2/1, December, 1960, followed in 1962 with a longer edition.