Richard Bird obituary

Other lives: Computer scientist whose polished style led to his being known as the ‘poet laureate of functional programming’

My mentor, colleague and friend Richard Bird, who has died of cancer aged 79, was a computer scientist specialising in the mathematics of computer programming. Instead of repeatedly finding and fixing bugs in a program until it appears to pass all tests, he argued for calculating the program from a precise specification of what it should do - just as one calculates a quotient and remainder by long division, rather than guessing and correcting an answer.

Richard was born in London. His parents, Kay and Jack, were publicans who ran the Rose in Northfleet in Kent, the Prince of Wales in Cleaver Square, south London, then the Horseshoe and Wheatsheaf, near London Bridge. Richard attended St Olave’s grammar school in Southwark, then studied mathematics at Cambridge. After a brief spell working in sales for International Computers and Tabulators, he started postgraduate study at the University of London Institute of Computer Science.

Richard took up a lectureship at the University of Reading in 1972, moving to the Programming Research Group at the University of Oxford in 1983. He stayed there throughout his career, being promoted to professor, serving as director, and finally retiring in 2008.

His research area was functional programming - an approach to computer programming following traditional mathematical conventions. It was self-evident to him - in contrast to many - that programs are mathematical entities, manipulable just like in high-school algebra.

In 1980 he began a very fruitful collaboration with Lambert Meertens from Amsterdam, developing what came to be known as the Bird-Meertens Formalism, or “Squiggol” to its friends.

Richard was known worldwide for the clarity and wit of his writing. He published about 100 scientific papers in his lifetime - not especially prolific for a scientist, but every one was highly polished. He also wrote or co-wrote seven books, the best loved of which is Introduction to Functional Programming (1988, with Phil Wadler), setting out his teaching vision.

He is also known for having introduced “functional pearls” - illuminating presentations of programming ideas. They are not just shorter versions of standard research papers: they may re-present known results, but they had better be “polished, elegant, instructive, entertaining”. Richard’s own writing epitomised them; a colleague called him “the poet laureate of functional programming”.

But Richard was also loved by colleagues, students, and departmental administrative staff for his openness, generosity and egalitarianism. He took me under his wing as his doctoral student when I arrived in Oxford without a project, and I basically owe him my whole career.

In addition to being very well read, he was a film buff, and a keen player of bridge and poker. As a student he played the bongos, and in later life he took up the ukulele.

He met Norma Lapworth, a teacher, and later an Ofsted inspector, at a birthday party, and they were married in 1967. She survives him, as does his younger sister, Jackie.

Jeremy Gibbons

The GuardianTramp

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