January 10, 2008
I saw on reddit that today is Donald Knuth's seventieth birthday.
Knuth is arguably the most famous living computer scientist, author of the seminal Art of Computer Programming series. Here's how serious Mr. Knuth is-- his books are dedicated, not to his wife or a loved one, but to a computer:
This series of books is affectionately dedicated
to the Type 650 computer once installed at
Case Institute of Technology,
in remembrance of many pleasant evenings.
Jeffrey Shallit compiled an excellent set of links commemorating the 70th birthday of this legendary figure:
- The Genius of Donald Knuth: Typesetting with Boxes and Glue. "I don't know of any other software other than TeX implemented in the 1970s that remains absolutely and unquestionably dominant in its domain. And the glue-and-boxes model of text layout was a piece of absolute genius - one of the most masterful examples of capturing an extremely complex problem using an extremely simple model. It's beautiful. And it's typical of the kind of thing that Knuth does."
- Opinion 86 "So Knuth is very right to worry about constants. And he gets his hands dirty and does the coding all by himself, and he gave us such great programs as TeX, and its fully-detailed manuals. He taught us by example the art of computer programming, and he modestly claims that it is art in the sense of the artisan rather than that of the artist. But his perfect artisanship became the most refined of fine arts."
- Analyzing Algorithm X "Knuth was the first to use the phrase 'analysis of algorithms,' at the 1970 ICM in Nice. He popularized and extended O-notation (previously used in functional analysis) as an essential tool for algorithm analysis. And his Art of Computer Programming set the standards for the field and is still well worth reading today."
- Volume 4 is already written (in our hearts). "But this being a lecture series, Knuth also fields questions from the audience about everything from sin and redemption to mathematical Platonism. He has a habit of parrying all the really difficult questions with humor; indeed, he does this so often one comes to suspect humor is his answer."
- Don Knuth is 70 "As a member of a community whose life is punctuated by twice-yearly conferences, what I find most inspiring about Knuth is his dedication to perfection, whatever time it might take to achieve it."
- Today is Knuth's 70th birthday!! "He was one of the first people to realize that an algorithm can be analysed in a mathematical and intelligent way without running it. This is one of the most important starting points for computer science theory. Perhaps even for computer science."
- Happy Birthday, Don Knuth! "Don Knuth straddled both worlds effortlessly, gaining respect from 15 year old hackers and 50 year old researchers alike. And that's the most tremendous feat of all."
- Donald Knuth and Me: "Later, when I attended university, I began to understand Knuth's wider influence. Almost everywhere I turned, Knuth had been there before."
For mainstream press coverage of Donald Knuth, Jeffrey recommends:
My very favorite thing about Mr. Knuth is that, despite the profound and enduring depth of his contributions to the field of computer science, he has a great sense of humor. For proof, let's go back in time. Way, way back, to Mad Magazine #33, originally published in 1957.
These images are from Absolutely Mad: 50 Years of Mad Magazine, a DVD-ROM containing (almost) every issue of Mad. Surprisingly, the disc isn't encumbered by any bizarre DRM scheme; every issue is a simple PDF file in a folder on the disc. The resolution isn't as high as I would like, but I'm not about to complain after paying thirty-three measly bucks for a nearly complete digital library of Mad.
As a long time fan of Mad Magazine, I was delighted to discover that Donald Knuth contributed an article to Mad, "The Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures", while he was still in high school. It's a little difficult to read the introductory text that ties the article to Knuth, so I'll quote it here.
When Milwaukee's Donald Knuth first presented his revolutionary system of weights and measures to the members of the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, they were astounded... mainly because Donald also has two heads. All kidding aside, Donald's system won first prize as the "most original presentation". So far, the system has been adopted in Tierra del Fuego, Afghanistan, and Southern Rhodesia. The U.N. is considering it for world adoption.
This new system of measuring, which is destined to become the measuring system of the future, has decided improvements over the other systems now in use. It is based on measurements taken 6-9-12 at the Physics Lab of Milwaukee Lutheran High School, in Milwaukee, Wis., when the thickness of Mad Magazine #26 was determined to be 2.263348517438173216473 mm. This length is the basis for the entire system, and is called one potrzebie of length. The Potrzebie has also been standardized at 3515.3502 wave lengths of the red line in the spectrum of cadmium. A partial table of the Potrzebie System, the measuring system of the future, is given below.
I still subscribe to Mad Magazine; the biting satire and political humor haven't aged a bit in the intervening fifty years. I know it sounds crazy for a grown man to extol the virtues of what most charitably consider to be a kids' humor rag. But I'm not the only one. Just ask the Los Angeles Times' Robert Boyd:
[Mad Magazine] instilled in me a habit of mind, a way of thinking about a world rife with false fronts, small print, deceptive ads, booby traps, treacherous language, double standards, half truths, subliminal pitches and product placements; it warned me that I was often merely the target of people who claimed to be my friend; it prompted me to mistrust authority, to read between the lines, to take nothing at face value, to see patterns in the often shoddy construction of movies and TV shows; and it got me to think critically in a way that few actual humans charged with my care ever bothered to.
Programming algorithms are hard science, backed by some serious math. Thanks for the reminder, Mr. Knuth, that computer science is indeed serious stuff, but it's also a lot of fun. Here's to you-- and to the enduring art of computer programming you introduced us all to.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
hmm.... Happy bithday professor Knuth.
Jeff, good to see you doing this... :)
Being a quibbler, I have to mention that I think Stroustrup is more famous. But then, if you've heard of one you should have heard of the other.
Just bought myself the 3 volume set as a christmas present to myself (paid about half price by shopping around at the Amazon partner stores but they wouldn't let me use my gift tokens). Also recommend the Millennium Edition of "programming pearls", which says that *serious* programmers should have 2 copies: one for work and one for home.
You didn't mention the concrete mathematics book he co-authored that he talks about in the introduction. Suspect I'm gonna need a copy before too long.
Nice article! And happy birthday to professor Knuth!
Currently completing a CS degree, I'm disappointed in myself that I only of Knuth in 2007 while doing algorithms/data structures. I still have a very very long way to go!
After doing a fair bit of reading on the man I've discovered that he is absolutely brilliant! Not brilliant as in Einstein brilliant, but in a totally different way that transcends the gap between scientist and student.
He offers money (a very small amount.. $3.14 or something) for anyone that discovers a spelling mistake in his books. It's this silly down-to-earth-ness that makes people want to listen to his insanely brilliant ideas.
Great man. Happy Birthday.
Hotlinked 'Knuth is my homeboy' image? Classy, hope they don't replace it with tubgirl.
Buy the T-shirt here:
Ah, Donald Knuth.
Thanks to him, we know have to learn the O( ) notation for all the algorithms! It's extremely useful, I still think "Mmm, that's in O(n), can't I make it faster?".
And of course, having written my thesis in Latex, I'm damn glad he made Tex or I would have had to make it in Word. The horror!
And his Art of Computer Programming of course. So far only used it to find all permutations of a string but it came in use :)
And a good sense of humor too, check out http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/arvindn/misc/knuth_song_complexity.pdf
3 cheers to Knuth!
"Mr." Knuth? Mister? Thats DOCTOR Knuth to you!
*Insert Dr. Evil "four years of Evil MiX Programming School" bit here*
I missed all those old folks. Back then, computer scientists had deep knowledge, humor, fantasy and less "ego".
Happy birthday professor Knuth.
A Conversation with Don Knuth: Part 2 (1982)
The main thing that struck me was that the liturature was so spotty. Computer science was a very new field, without an identity of its own, and standards of publication were not terribly high, especially when quantitative aspects of algorithm performance were concerned. A lot of the published articles were just wrong, so you had three possibilities: the wrong answer by the wrong method, the right answer by the wrong method, and the right answer by the right method. You had about a one-third chance on any of these possibilities. The literature on computing was already large but very unreliable..
Any similarity between that, and today's developers who grow up learning from the internet and Google searches, is I'm sure completely coincidental..
(also, I wish I could get to the rest of that 14 page interview, it looks really interesting.)
A brilliant computer nerd with a cool sense of humor. That's the way (uh huh uh huh) I like it.
Knuth contributed to Mad???
someone pick my brain up off the floor and shove it back up my nostrils.
and next week: the dirty limericks of petzold.
"For mainstream press coverage of Donald Knuth, JEFFERY recommends:"
Referring to yourself in the third person? Seriously?
Von hates that. Leave such lunacy to egotistical movie stars
This is an astonishing find, Don Knuth and Mad. What a combo! Thanks, Jeff.
Hey Now Jeff,
I wonder if Mr. Knuth is thinking 'How ya like me now'. I'm just joking thinking of Kool Moe Dee after seeing Knuth is my homeboy. Another great post, I never realized he dedicated his books to his machines.
Coding Horror Fan,
This is nuts...I went to MLHS!
All this time I never knew who Knuth was.
WHAT is MIX ?
MIX is a hypothetical computer used in Donald Knuth’s monograph, The Art of Computer Programming (TAOCP). MIX’s model number is 1009, which was derived by combining the model numbers and names of several contemporaneous, commercial machines deemed significant by the author. (“MIX” also has the value 1009 in Roman numerals.)
The 1960s-era MIX has since been superseded by a new (also hypothetical) computer architecture, MMIX, to be incorporated in forthcoming editions of TAOCP. Software implementations for both the MIX and MMIX architectures have been developed by Knuth and made freely available (named “MIXware” and “MMIXware,” respectively).
Several derivatives of Knuth’s MIX/MMIX emulators also exist. GNU MDK is one such software package; it is free and runs on a wide variety of platforms.
I was so proud when I got a job and could actually afford to buy my own set of Knuth. Still proudly on the shelf right behind me, in fact.
off-topic, or perhaps, side-topic, Jeff Shallit was a prof of mine. I remember his lectures well, as I thought he was insane. Well, not insane. More like passionate about weird CS problems,... to the point of insanity. I guess insanity for me, since I was trying to get through a set of courses that term, but every lecture was like a get-into-google-brainteaser.
The only one I remember was something about the big O of doing a binary search in an infinite list, something like that. I look back thinking 'good times', but at the time, I don't think I thought so, heh
Thank you Dr. Knuth and happy birthday!
Sorry Jeff, my bad with my the "speaking in the third person" thing. Thanks spoon for pointing it out. We'll just blame it on my falsocondrilexia. (A made up brain disorder that accepts blame for me acting like an ass, in order to make me not feel quite so bad about acting like said ass).
Jeff accepts your apology.
Hmm Prof.Donald Knuth ,i didn't really know much about him before reading this post, i guess he is like Einstein in the computer programming world .Happy birthday Donald,you rock!It is nice to know i share the same first name with a genius.Keep up the good work Jeff.
Now all I can think about is how to turn the image of Don Knuth into a fold-in back cover.
Yay, happy birthday to professor Knuth!
"He pays a finder's fee of $2.56 for any typographical errors or mistakes discovered in his books, because "256 pennies is one hexadecimal dollar".Source:Wikipedia
Humor in an informative way,maybe thats why he is so good at what he does.At least he knows the bottom line of life : to have fun .
Ps: Jeff, please check your mail, i have written to you twice and it's been like two weeks now ,just wondering what happened to the reply.
A nice post Jeff
It may be a coincidence that i have searched and read about him and the seminal book Art of Computer programming related to refreshing ups with Algorithms. I never noticed that it's his b'day. Thanks alot for remaining it.
Just don't send him a congratulatory email. a href="http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~knuth/email.htmlHe doesn't use it/a:
Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don't have time for such study.
On the other hand, I need to communicate with thousands of people all over the world as I write my books. I also want to be responsive to the people who read those books and have questions or comments. My goal is to do this communication efficiently, in batch mode --- like, one day every three months.
Dr. Knuth's contributions to the field are endless, but personally I think it's a shame that he feels that his Computer Science expertise somehow extends into the realm of politics:
Regardless of political affiliation, this is the same kind of baseless preaching we get from the Hollywood elites.
Thanks Frank. Someone had to say it. Dr. Knuth may be a brilliant computer scientist, but his "infrequently asked questions" are the same tired preaching you can get on any college campus in the country.
I took up a hybrid course in business and computer programming. We didn't even get to read anything that he wrote. Lessons were about making VB6 applications really fast.
Oh well. More stuff to read for later.
'Jeff accepts your apology.'
Knuth is great. His books are amazingly clear even to non-specialists. I've never taken a CS course in my life and I found his stuff completely readable and very helpful.
I also have the MAD DVD -- it's great, if you like MAD. The PDFs are also searchable!
Knuth's "Art of Computer Programming" was required reading in my first Computer Science class. I don't think I'd be the developer I am today were it not for what I learned from that book.
Tim and Frank: I hope you realize that you just expressed an opinion,
which is exactly what Donald Knuth did, as well. You seem to be saying that because someone is an eminent Computer Scientist (or Hollywood actor, or whatever), one should not opine about politics.
Such position is wrong, on so many levels. For one thing, I don't think you mind Ahnold (who actually seems to be a reasonable pol, at least part of the time). For another, it betrays arrogance, and a lack of proportion, to deny others of what one thinks is right for oneself. Frankly, the lack of ability for such symmetric moral reasoning seems to be an intellectual flaw of the conservative folk.
Happy Birthday homie Kunth !
@pj - the problem is not the fact that he expressed an opinion, but he's doing so from his CS pedestal. I have absolutely no problem with people expressing viewpoints. That's how the political process works after all. However attempting to lend weight to a political view based on experience in a completely different--and unrelated, that's the key--arena is, in fact, a big problem today.
But Frank, the biggest problem at the end of 2001 was that very few people were critical enough of Mr Bush, thus landing the USA with another Vietnam-type conflict. "Mission accomplished".
I remember debating with deranged Americans around that time, and they were very blind to what was going on. WMDs, Saddam supporting terrorists, stability in the region, and so on were all used as reasons. Yet it was easy, even back then, to spot the real reason (oil and an desire to appear superior to his dad). Unless you happened to have voted for that insane guy in the first place; Just apply common sense.
By now all this is so obvious, that you should not be surprised that everyone, regardless of their occupation, is pointing it out. In fact, given the circumstances, it should be considered a crime not doing so.
He kind of looks like master yoda in the picture, doesnt he?
I am a self-taught developer.I have no comp science background.How easy it will be for me to read "art of computer programming".Any suggestions,how should I approach reading it?
great posting: thanks for sharing that
Thank you, Dr.Knuth and happy birth day. :)
Von no read good?
I believe Jeff was refering to 'Jeffrey Shallit' who "compiled an excellent set of links commemorating the 70th birthday of this legendary figure:"
"Knuth is arguably the most famous living computer scientist"
although if you asked the general public, you'd probably get "Bill Gates" as a response.
One of the most important things about Knuth's work is that he is meticulous in finding and crediting original sources.
An appalling side-effect of that is to find out the number of times that history has been repeated, and the variety of situation in which, because people do not have any appreciation of what has gone before, second-rate techniques are invented when first-rate techniques are available in the literature.
Too many developers have no idea of what is in the literature. Or even that there is one.
Ha, that's awesome, he dedicated his books to a computer. The love of one man knows no bound when it comes to his naked lady machine.