In praise of Peter Denning

Peter Denning
Peter Denning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s often said one should not meet one’s heroes as, all too often, they turn out to be, well, just a bit too human. To be sure, in politics I have often been up close to people who were seen as etherial beings by many but were indeed a bit ordinary close up (though you also can see in some people an inexpressible quality of brilliance – Tony Blair and Ken Clarke both had this).

Well, I have never met Peter J. Denning, the discoverer of the “working set method”, and the man whose work formed the intellectual backdrop to my MSc project last year. But I have now exchanged a few emails with him and I do want to say that they have all increased my admiration for him as one of the great foundational figures of modern computing.

He sought me out after he came across my MSc. I have to say my first section was that he was likely to tear a strip off me (actually my very first reaction was to think he was a recruitment consultant wasting his time – it simply never occurred to me that the Peter Denning emailing me would be that Peter Denning) – as I had described his formulation of the space-time product for memory management as flawed. In fact he just pointed out that I was criticising an approximation which he accepted did not fully represent the space-time needed to manage a working set method of page replacement but also pointed out he had accounted for this in other papers (and he had).

He and I then exchanged a few emails about memory management issues and about my current research interests.

A great man. A giant of computing. And nice to boot. Who would have thought it?