Donald Knuth – Computer Scientist

Posted on May 23, 2006  Comments (1)

photo of Donald Knuth playing his home organ

Love at First Byte by Kara Platoni:

In the early ’60s, publisher Addison-Wesley invited Knuth to write a book on compiler design. Knuth eagerly drafted 3,000 pages by hand before someone at the publishing house informed him that would make an impossibly long book. The project was reconceived as the seven-volume The Art of Computer Programming. Although Knuth has written other books in the interim, this would become his life’s work. The first three volumes were published in 1968, 1969 and 1973. Volume 4 has been in the works nearly 30 years.

Its subject, combinatorial algorithms, or computational procedures that encompass vast numbers of possibilities, hardly existed when Knuth began the series. Now the topic grows faster than anyone could reasonably chronicle it. “He says if everyone else stopped doing work he would catch up better,” deadpans Jill Knuth, his wife of nearly 45 years.

Art of Computer Programming, Volume 1: Fundamental AlgorithmsArt of Computer Programming, Volume 2: Seminumerical AlgorithmsArt of Computer Programming, Volume 3: Sorting and Searching

Usually a lone wolf, Knuth collaborated on his typography programs with some of the world’s best typographers and his students. He produced two software programs, the TeX typesetting system and the METAFONT alphabet design system, which he released to the public domain. The programs are used for the bulk of scientific publishing today. “He made everybody’s life so much better and made the scholarly work so much more beautiful,” Papadimitriou says. “He has exported a lot of good will for computer science.”

See photo:

He likes to hide jokes in the index, as in Volume 3, where “royalties, use of” leads you to a page with an illustration of an organ-pipe array, a little wink to the 16-rank organ that dominates his home. He plays four-hands music with Jill, who swears that the neighbors tend to complain that the music emanating from their house is in fact not loud enough.


One Response to “Donald Knuth – Computer Scientist”

  1. CuriousCat: Interview with Donald Knuth
    April 26th, 2008 @ 9:26 am

    “I’m basically advising young people to listen to themselves rather than to others, and I’m one of the others. Almost every biography of every person whom you would like to emulate will say that he or she did many things against the ‘conventional wisdom’ of the day…”

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