Mad, Beautiful Ideas
Happy Birthday Donald Knuth

Yesterday, Donald Knuth, the preeminent professor of Computer Science from Stanford, who is easily the most well known person in Computer Science today, at least from a Programming perspective. Over the years his papers and thoughtful letters on the science of programming have been a welcome change for those of us who actually write code.

Donald Knuth is not the father of anything in Computing. The theory of computing and programming had been dreamed up by Alonzo Church and Alan Turing, but for them it was only theory. The research of Knuth has taken the Art of Computer Programming, and through the course of the three volumes of this work, converted it into a craft.

Unfortunately, I haven’t read enough Knuth to do justice to the man’s work. I’ve read a few key papers, such as Goto Considered Harmful, passages from The Art of Computer Programming and his more recent letter regarding the shady racket that is Scientific Journals.

Knuth is easily the most influential person of modern computing. The paper’s he’s been writing since the early seventies have had an impact on everyone writing code since then. Jeffrey Shallit felt that Computer Science bloggers should all talk about their favorite Knuth writing in honor of his birthday, and how he’s influenced their own work.

I wish I could do this great man justice. However, while his work has no doubt affected me in a profound manner, so much of what he’s done has become part of the common knowledge of Computer Programming, that, having read as criminally small amount of Knuth as I have, I cannot fairly attribute my knowledge to him or not. [Luckily], there are a good number of bloggers who are more educated than I.

From extending Big-O notation for algorithmic analysis, to inventing LR-Processing, to providing the strongest argument for the establishment of procedural programming from linear programming of anyone at the time, Donald Knuth has impacted every programmer’s life in an innumerable amount of ways.

What impressed me most about this celebration of all things Knuth, was what Scott Aaronson had to write about Knuth. Not about Knuth the scientist, for that he mostly talked about TeX, but about Knuth the Man. A Man who is deeply religious (I’m really curious about his book analyzing verse 3:16 of every book of the bible), but who is rational enough to acknowledge that the circumstances of his upbringing made him into the man who he is today, belief in God and all.

The beauty of Knuth, is not that he said what he said. But that he said it because he believed it to be true. Donald Knuth is a man of well-thought conviction. Everything he’s written has been well thought out. Well researched. Well considered. His opinions have often been unpopular, but Knuth doesn’t form opinions to appease others, with his opinions come conviction. It is a testament to his intelligence and attention to detail, that he has so often been correct, even though the opinion wasn’t always popular.