Homage to Maurice Nivat, Pioneer in Theoretical IT



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Maurice Nivat has just died shortly before his 80th birthday, after playing a fundamental role in organising and promoting theoretical computer science.  A mathematics graduate of the École Normale Supérieur, he was only barely interested in traditional mathematics, too far removed from technical life. He came across IT encouraged by Henri Cartan and then Marcel-Paul Schützenberger, who in 1961 initiated the theory of language and robots, and combinatorics where he made significant contributions. When the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (IRIA, then INRIA) was founded in 1967, Jacques-Louis Lions and Marcel-Paul Schützenberger invited him to create a theoretical IT group. The two main subjects were the study of mathematical algorithms and formal semantics, which attempted to precisely define and analyse programming languages. This led to new mathematical approaches, which presaged their current explosion. Maurice Nivat also created a laboratory of theoretical computer studies at the Paris Faculty of Sciences and started to bring all French research in this field together.
He joined the staff of the École des Mines in 1970 and while I was doing IT research, I was lucky enough to work in building 8 at the Rocquencourt IRIA where Maurice Nivat’s team was based and where he directed my theses. The atmosphere was extraordinary, with young scientists many of whom became big names internationally: Philippe Flajolet in algorithmics, Gérard Huet in logics, Gilles Kahn in programming, Jean Vuillemin in electronic circuits... Nivat travelled extensively and invited the best scientists from around the world. He organised spring workshops, famous for the quality of the presentations and their scientific work, but also for their venues and cuisine. During these halcyon days, rivalries and the pressure to publish did not yet exist. In 1977, when I joined my new laboratory in Sophia Antipolis, he helped considerably by jointly organising with me an independent semantics school, with all the world stars in programming - he did the same for many other labs.

His action in Europe was just as decisive. He helped to create the European Association for Theoretical Computer Science (EATCS) in 1972, and founded the Theoretical Computer Science review in 1975, for which he acted as Chief Editor for many years. His research and actions were recognised by the Academy of Sciences, at which he became a member in 1983. He was not satisfied with theory alone; he was also interested in industrial issues, and promoted traditional software engineering in line with our mathematical models. In 1982, he chaired the French “Conseil Scientifique du Programme Mobilisateur de la Filière Electronique”, creating coordinated research programmes (PRC) managed by the scientists and then, in 1992 and 1993, the French Observatory for Computer Science.

One of his combats, that I shared, was the general teaching of real computer science, from primary school to the baccalaureate. Teaching children how to use computers and software without understanding their scientific basis does not prepare them for the future; real scientific and technical teaching is essential. Maurice Nivat led many working groups on this issue, wrote several reports and spoke to ministers, although he remained sad at how much computer science was ignored by politicians and other scientists. Things are changing now, but too slowly he found, especially concerning teacher training. The combat continues. Maurice Nivat will be remembered as a creative and curious man, extensive traveller and organiser of scientific communities and a promoter of young people and their ideas. In short, one of the visionaries in modern computer science.




Gérard Berry

Computer Scientist

Gérard is a professor at the Collège de France, member of the french Academy of Sciences and CNRS gold medal in 2014.

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November 11, 2018

November 11, 2018

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