Archive for January 10th, 2008

Happy Birthday to Knuth!

January 10, 2008

Scott at Shtetl-optimized informs that today is the birthday of Donald E Knuth:

Today is the 70th birthday of Donald E. Knuth: Priest of Programming, Titan of Typesetting, Monarch of MMIX, intellectual heir to Turing and von Neumann, greatest living computer scientist by almost-universal assent … alright, you get the idea.

That being the case, Jeff Shallit proposed to various CS bloggers that we should all band together and present the master with a birthday surprise: one post each about how his work has inspired us.

I am no computer scientist; however, a small detail like that did not stop me from buying all the three volumes of Knuth’s The art of computer programming. So, let it also not stop me from writing a small post about my discovery of Knuth and his work.

Like many researchers of my generation in the Institute at that time, my introduction to Knuth happened via \LaTeX; that led me to \TeX. Then, I happened to read his interview in Mathematical People. Around the same time, I got to read his book on Mathematical Writing (co-authored with Tracy Larrabee and Paul Roberts) which is basically the class notes of a course that he gave at Stanford. Then, via some discussions on Djikstra’s GoTo Statement considered harmful, I learnt about Knuth’s concept of Literate Programming, which led me back to his work on \TeX and the five volumes of the \TeX code that he published using WEB. I even used CWEB for a while. Finally, a couple of years ago, I also spent a lot of time watching his video lectures of a problem solving course of his, hosted online (and, browsing the net for his speeches and other miscellaneous writing).

Thus, so far, I have been influenced by Knuth at least in a couple of important aspects: technical writing (production of physically elegant documents written in good style) and writing literate code. In that sense, I remain his student forever (and, this probably is also the time to thanks all my seniors, lab mates and friends who not only taught me \LaTeX but also to approach it with an attitude of awe).

For a more nuanced appreciation of Knuth and his work, you might want to follow some of the links in Scott’s post. Have fun!