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Softpanorama Bulletin
Vol 14, No. 04 (October, 2002)

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knuth.gifChapter 1: Donald Knuth: Leonard Euler of Computer Science

version 0.80

"Computer programming is an art form,
like the creation of poetry or music"

Donald E. Knuth[1974]


Let me make it clear from the very beginning: I really admire this man. Donald E. Knuth is not only Professor Emeritus of The Art of Computer Programming at Stanford University, the author of the multi-volume work-in-progress The Art of Computer Programming, five volumes of Computers & Typesetting, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Engineering and so on and so forth. Unlike many other bearers of a similar number of prestigious titles and published books, he is a unique lonely star among computer science researchers. I would say he is man of a stature similar to the stature of Leonard Euler in mathematics. Such men are not born every century...

Despite opinion of some overzealous (or in a permanent state of religious stupor) free/open software evangelists, free software existed long before Gnu project and the volume of it far exceeded the GNU project. Moreover the current free/open software is largely based on what has come before it. Professor Donald Knuth is one of the largest contributors to this pool of knowledge. Moreover, free and open programs are only as good as algorithms they are using. And dismissing his contributions to free software movement as irrelevant like "professional software freedom fighter" Richard Stallman once did (see Slashdot/2nd Annual Free Software Foundation Awards ) was at least disrespectful (even if we forget the fact that TeX is one of the most important free software programs ever written). 

It's amazing that despite the information explosion in computer science Professor Knuth is still trying to finish his monumental The Art of Computer Programming (TAoCP), a one-author written encyclopedia of algorithms and computer science. That really makes him  "The Last of the Mohicans" -- the last Renaissance man in computer science. He one of few who has managed to make contributions to a very diverse spectrum of  computer science topics. Among them:

Still no other book in computer science can be compared with his encyclopedic The Art of Computer Programming (TAoCP). It is one of the few books which remain relevant 30 years after the initial publication. I am convinced that every person who suspects that he/she has a programming abilities (and BTW an early interest/start is a good indication of abilities in any field, including programming) should buy or borrow the first volume of TAoCP and try to solve exercises after each chapter. The ability to solve difficult exercises from the first volume is a sure sign of people with substantial talent and can be a good self-test. It can help to decide whether it makes sense to dedicate yourself to career in computer science or not. Of course, computer science changed a lot since 1960th when TAOC was published; stagnation of CS departments is a fact that cannot be hidden. But despite that there are still a few areas in it where creativity matters and where talented people can make a significant contribution. As a side note, it is clear that becoming a quant in company like Goldman Sachs is not such a bright future as many assume.  Modern financial system in parasitic in a sense that it imposes huge cost on the society; one part of that cost is that large pool of top talent in the western world gravitates to financial firms. At the level of the society and aggregate economy, this is a waste  of resources: their activity adds little or no economic value.

Science including computer science is another story. It does has value to the society at large and Donald Knuth life is a good example what a single talented individual can accomplish besides buying a yacht with his name on it and a half-dozen of villas in different parts of the globe.


Richard M. Stallman, Linus Torvalds, and Donald E. Knuth
engage in a discussion on whose impact
on the computerized world was the greatest.
Stallman: "God told me I have programmed
 the best editor in the world!"
Torvalds: "Well, God told *me* that I have programmed
 the best operating system in the world!"
Knuth: "Wait, wait - I never said that."

From rec.humor.funny.
submitted by [email protected] (Erik Meltzer)

While the above joke is somewhat silly, it has a grain of truth in it: even among numerous computer pioneers in Stanford, Donald Knuth is a legendary figure. The figure with its own set of urban legends. For example, the old  anecdote from Alan Kay, one of the principal designers of the Smalltalk language, illustrates the point:

When I was at Stanford with the AI project [in the late 1960s] one of the things we used to do every Thanksgiving is have a computer programming contest with people on research projects in the Bay area. The prize I think was a turkey.

[John] McCarthy used to make up the problems. The one year that Knuth entered this, he won both the fastest time getting the program running and he also won the fastest execution of the algorithm. He did it on the worst system with remote batch called the Wilbur system. And he basically beat the shit out of everyone.

And they asked him, "How could you possibly do this?" And he answered, "When I learned to program, you were lucky if you got five minutes with the machine a day. If you wanted to get the program going, it just had to be written right. So people just learned to program like it was carving stone. You sort of have to sidle up to it. That's how I learned to program."

In his 2008 interview to InformIT  Donald Knuth recollected events in the following way:

Andrew: A story states that you once entered a programming contest at Stanford (I believe) and you submitted the winning entry, which worked correctly after a single compilation. Is this story true? In that vein, today’s developers frequently build programs writing small code increments followed by immediate compilation and the creation and running of unit tests. What are your thoughts on this approach to software development?

Donald: The story you heard is typical of legends that are based on only a small kernel of truth. Here’s what actually happened: John McCarthy decided in 1971 to have a Memorial Day Programming Race. All of the contestants except me worked at his AI Lab up in the hills above Stanford, using the WAITS time-sharing system; I was down on the main campus, where the only computer available to me was a mainframe for which I had to punch cards and submit them for processing in batch mode. I used Wirth’s ALGOL W system (the predecessor of Pascal). My program didn’t work the first time, but fortunately I could use Ed Satterthwaite’s excellent offline debugging system for ALGOL W, so I needed only two runs. Meanwhile, the folks using WAITS couldn’t get enough machine cycles because their machine was so overloaded. (I think that the second-place finisher, using that "modern" approach, came in about an hour after I had submitted the winning entry with old-fangled methods.) It wasn’t a fair contest.

As to your real question, the idea of immediate compilation and "unit tests" appeals to me only rarely, when I’m feeling my way in a totally unknown environment and need feedback about what works and what doesn’t. Otherwise, lots of time is wasted on activities that I simply never need to perform or even think about. Nothing needs to be "mocked up."

Donald Knuth probably received more prestigious computer science related awards then any other professor of computer sciences ;-), including the 1974 Turing Award, and the 1979 National Medal of Technology. He holds honorary doctorates from more than 15 universities worldwide including prestigious Russian St. Petersburg University, the university were Leonard Euler, the most prolific mathematician in the 18th century and maybe even of all time, spend his most productive years (he succeeded  Bernoulli as Professor of Mathematics of St. Petersburg University in 1733). That's probably an example for Knuth to strive for, as Leonard Euler published 866 books and articles that represented about one third of the entire body of research on mathematics, theoretical physics, and engineering mechanics published between 1726 and 1800. Among other things he modernized mathematical notation including the introduction of now standard symbols  \pi  and e. An interesting, but little known fact is that in 1962 Knuth obtained 1,271 digits of Euler's constant, using the Euler-Maclaurin summation.

Actually the analogy between Donald Knuth and Leonard Euler is deeper than Lutheran religion, tremendous productivity and groundbreaking contributions. Both has interest in things quite remote from the their main field: Leonard Euler was interested in cartography (historians believe that this contributed to his early blindness) and spent a lot of time and effort on non-mathematical studies; Donald Knuth also spend huge amount of time and effort outside his major field while he developed the TeX and Metafont (written in WEB for Pascal) -- the major open source typesetting system that become a standard de-facto in mathematics and computer science. He also published 3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated.

Like Euler believed in the esthetic value of mathematic theories, Knuth believes that preparing programs for a computer can be an aesthetic experience, much like composing poetry or music. As for music he probably knows what he is talking about: he plays a custom-made pipe-organ (this sixteen-rank organ was designed and built for his home by Abbott and Sieker of Los Angeles, California, as their ``Opus 67.'' It has 812 pipes, separated into three divisions).


This article is a part of the first chapter of the book Nikolai Bezroukov. Portraits of Open Source Pioneers: Essays on early history of open source). Newer version of this article might be avalable at  Donald Knuth: Leonard Euler of Computer Science




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Fifty glorious years (1950-2000): the triumph of the US computer engineering : Donald Knuth : TAoCP and its Influence of Computer Science : Richard Stallman : Linus Torvalds  : Larry Wall  : John K. Ousterhout : CTSS : Multix OS Unix History : Unix shell history : VI editor : History of pipes concept : Solaris : MS DOSProgramming Languages History : PL/1 : Simula 67 : C : History of GCC developmentScripting Languages : Perl history   : OS History : Mail : DNS : SSH : CPU Instruction Sets : SPARC systems 1987-2006 : Norton Commander : Norton Utilities : Norton Ghost : Frontpage history : Malware Defense History : GNU Screen : OSS early history

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