The ‘Art’ of Being
In this first of a two-part talk, the renowned scholar and computer scientist
reflects on the influences that set the course for his extraordinary career.
THE COMPUTER HISTORY
Museum has an active program
to gather videotaped histories from people who have
done pioneering work in
this first century of the information
age. These tapes are a rich aggregation
of stories that are preserved in the collection, transcribed, and made available
on the Web to researchers, students,
and anyone curious about how invention happens.
The oral histories are conversations
about people’s lives. We want to know
about their upbringing, their families,
their education, and their jobs. But
above all, we want to know how they
came to the passion and creativity that
leads to innovation.
Presented here in two installments
(concluding next month) are excerptsa
from an interview conducted by Edward Feigenbaum in March 2007 of
Donald E. Knuth, Professor Emeritus of
The Art of Computer Programming at
Stanford University. — L. S.
PHOTOGRAPH BY TIMO THY ARCHIBALD
Don talks about his
My father was the first person among
all his ancestors who had gone to college. My mother was the first person in
all of her ancestors who had gone to a
a Oral histories are not scripted, and a transcript
of casual speech is very different from what
one would write. I have taken the liberty of
editing and reordering freely for presentation.
For the original transcript, see http://archive.
scared that I was going to flunk out, but
still I was ready to work.
year of school to learn how to be a typist.
My great-grandfather was a blacksmith.
There was no tradition in our family of
higher education at all. These people
were pretty smart, but they didn’t have
an academic background.
Some people know from an early
age what they want to do. Don
didn’t, but he knew he wanted to
My main interest in those days was music. But at the college where I had been
admitted, people emphasized how easy
it was going to be there as a music major. When I got the chance to go to Case
Institute of Technology in Ohio instead,
I was intrigued by the idea that Case
was going to make me work hard. I was
he initially aspired to be
a physicist, but something
happened along the way.
In my sophomore year in physics I
had to take a required class of welding. Welding was so scary and I was
a miserable failure at it, so I decided
maybe I can’t be a physicist. On the
other hand—mathematics! In the
sophomore year for mathematicians,
they give you courses on what we now
call discrete mathematics, where you
study logic and things that are integers
instead of continuous quantities. I was
drawn to that. That was something,
somehow, that had great appeal to me.
I think that there is something
strange inside my head. It’s clear that
I have much better intuition about discrete things than continuous things. In
physics, for example, I could pass the
exams and I could do the problems in
quantum mechanics, but I couldn’t intuit what I was doing. But on the other
hand, in my discrete math class, these
were things that really seemed a part
of me. There’s definitely something in
how I had developed by the time I was
a teenager that made me understand
discrete objects, like zeros and ones
of course, or things that are made out
of alphabetical letters, much better
than things like Fourier transforms
I’m visualizing the symbols. To me,
the symbols are reality, in a way. I take