Thursday, April 4, 2013

D is for Donald Knuth

Donald Knuth describes himself as a professor of computer science, but he's known for many other things.  His biggest claim to fame is probably for creating the typesetting system TeX, which has been the lingua franca of academic writing in math and science for many decades.  He's made valuable contributions to both abstract mathematics and to Mad Magazine, and he's written books on philosophy and religion.


Knuth spent many years teaching, but he retired early with the intention to spend the next 20 years finishing his magnum opus, The Art of Computer Programming, a comprehensive multi-volume textbook of algorithms and their analysis.  I've only browsed through the early volumes (without digesting much), but I'm told they're utterly foundational to really knowing how to do programming right.

It's said that Knuth developed the TeX program, which allows one to do professional-level typesetting with equations and math symbols, just in order to be able to make his computer programming books as aesthetically pleasing as possible.  He also designed programs to create his own fonts to assist in this aim as well... his Computer Modern typeface is still used by thousands, including yours truly, on a daily basis.


Knuth has seemingly lived by William Blake's motto "I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's."  :-)

I've also been fascinated by Knuth's contributions to John Conway's idea of surreal numbers.  It's an alternate take on set theory and the mathematics of infinities that many describe as awe-inspiringly insightful.  When Conway introduced the basic idea to Knuth in the early 1970s, the latter went off and wrote a short novelette that presented the ideas in the form of a dialogue between two beach bums (Alice and Bill) who discovered the axioms of surreal number theory carved on a rock.  Of course, they go on to prove all manner of interesting theorems.  At the end, Alice rapturously falls into Bill's arms and says "Every discovery leads to more, and more!"  Bill glances at the sunset and says that "There are infinitely many things yet to do... and only a finite amount of time..."

Okay, Shakespeare he's not, but Knuth is really quite unique.  Let me just end with a couple of quotes from his philosophical book Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About,
"Somehow the whole idea of art and aesthetics and beauty underlies all the scientific work I do. Whatever I do, I try to do it in a way that has some elegance; I try to create something that I think is beautiful. Instead of just getting a job done, I prefer to do my work in a way that pleases me in as many senses as possible."
and
"In any case, I think people who write programs do have at least a glimmer of extra insight into the nature of God... because creating a program often means that you have to create a small universe. [...]  I think it's fair to say that many of today's large computer programs rank among the most complex intellectual achievements of all time. They're absolutely trivial by comparison with any of the works of God, but they're still somehow closer to those works than anything else we know."
Long may Don Knuth program!

16 comments:

  1. This series is turning out to be even more enjoyable than I thought it would. I'm soaking it up.

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    1. Thanks so much, Porky. It's been a lot of fun. I now have 22 posts down, and only 4 tough nuts to crack...

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  2. 'Knuth has seemingly lived by William Blake's motto "I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's."'

    The banner over all our tribe -- INTJs. :)

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    1. In my own case, it's "Start creating Ten Systems for every One that I actually finish," but yeah... :-)

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  3. Knuth's books are very clear and logically ordered. The scope of them is pretty intimidating: very smart fellow.

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    1. Yup. When I said that I browsed through the early volumes of The Art of Computer Programming, I'm pretty sure that I really meant "browsed through the table of contents."

      The stuff in there might actually be of use to me in my work, but the problem is that computers have gotten so fast that even the most "inelegant" programming methods have a good shot at getting the job done correctly -- and in the blink of an eye! Mea culpa, Don...

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  4. Surreal numbers - theoretical math is just plain wild!

    You could have one heck of a dinner party with your A-Z lineup.

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    1. It would be one interesting party! The only deficiency so far is the boy/girl ratio. That will get better as the alphabet chugs along, but it won't come anywhere close to 50/50, unfortunately.

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  5. Interesting take on a blog and the challenge. I'll be visiting again.

    Popped by from the AtoZ Challenge.

    thriftshopcommando.blogspot.com

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  6. Thanks for visiting, Evalina and Tami! This challenge is introducing me to so many interesting blogs and people.

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  7. Excellent post, and instructive. I learn here.

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    1. Thanks. I hope you're feeling better, Geo.

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  8. I had never heard of Donald Knuth. What an interesting mind he had. I've taken (and loved) classes in both typography and calligraphy & find it notable that certain computer geniuses like Steve Jobs & Donald Knuth had more than a passing interest in font design and aesthetics.

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    1. I didn't know this about Steve Jobs... I'm going to have to read one of those biographies sooner or later! :-)

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