When you write about Donald Knuth, it’s natural to sound scriptural. For nearly 40 years, the now-retired Stanford University professor has been writing the gospel of computer science, an epic called The Art of Computer Programming. The first three volumes already constitute the Good Book for advanced software devotees, selling a million copies around the world in a dozen languages. His approach to code permeates the software culture.
And lo, interrupting his calling for nine years, Donald Knuth wandered the wilderness of computer typography, creating a program that has become the Word in digital typesetting for scientific publishing. He called his software TeX, and offered it to all believers, rejecting the attempt by one tribe (Xerox) to assert ownership over its mathematical formulas. “Mathematics belongs to God,” he declared. But Knuth’s God is not above tricks on the faithful. In his TeX guide, The TeXbook, he writes that it “doesn’t always tell the truth” because the “technique of deliberate lying will actually make it easier for you to learn the ideas.”
Now intent on completing his scriptures, the 61-year-old Knuth (ka-NOOTH) leads what he calls a hermit-like existence (with his wife) in the hills surrounding the university, having taken early retirement from teaching. He has unplugged his personal e-mail account, posting a Web page (www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~knuth/) to keep the software multitudes at bay by answering frequently asked questions such as, “When is Volume 4 coming out?”
About once a month during the academic year, Knuth comes down from the heights to a basement lecture room in the Gates Computer Science Building at Stanford to deliver one of his “Computer Musings” lectures, usually about some aspect of his current work on The Art of Computer Programming. These talks draw computer science students, visiting professors, software engineers from nearby companies and an occasional CEO. On a balmy day earlier this year, the topic and listeners are different. To celebrate the publication of the
third volume of his collected papers, Digital Typography, the associates of the Stanford University Libraries have invited an audience of fans of the printed word to hear Knuth talk about creating the TeX system for scientific and mathematical publication. Wearing a black T-shirt over a long-sleeve black shirt, his bald pate glistening in the overhead lights, he appears suitably monkish before about 70 acolytes and colleagues.
Hesitatingly, his words fighting his innate Lutheran modesty, he begins: “My main life’s work and the reason that I started this whole project is to write a series of books called The Art of Computer Programming-for which I hope to live another 20 years and finish the project I began in 1962. Unfortunately, computer programming has grown over the years and so I’ve had to write a little more than I thought when I sketched it out.” The faithful laugh knowingly.
Knuth relates his detour into digital typography during the 1970s. This was a time of enormous change in the typesetting industry, as computer systems replaced the hot type that had been used since the day of Gutenberg. Computer typography was less expensive, but also less esthetically pleasing-especially for complex mathematical notation. Recalls Knuth: “As printing technology changed, the more important commercial activities were treated first and mathematicians came last. So our books and journals started to look very bad. I couldn’t stand to write books that weren’t going to look good.”