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Opus in Progress

Spending nine years instead of one to create tex is the same kind of epic miscalculation that led Knuth to the monumental scale of The Art of Computer Programming. After earning his undergraduate degree at Case Institute (now Case Western Reserve), he was studying for his PhD and teaching at the California Institute of Technology in 1962 when he was contracted by textbook publisher Addison-Wesley to write a volume on computer compilers. (Compilers are special programs that convert the text typed in by programmers into instructions in a computer’s native binary language.)

In his book-lined study, Knuth recounts the history of the project. From 1962 to 1966, he wrote the first draft in pencil. The manuscript was 3,000 pages long. “I was thinking it was one volume of maybe 600 pages. I just figured type in books was smaller than my handwriting. Then I typed up chapter one and by itself it was 450 pages. I sent it to the publisher and they said: Don, do you have any idea how long your book will be?”

Faced with such an unwieldy manuscript, many publishers would have dumped the project. Instead, Addison-Wesley worked out a publication schedule for what could eventually stretch out to seven volumes. Volume 4 is supposed to be ready in 2004 and Volume 5 by 2009. Then Knuth may finish Volumes 6 and 7-if what he has to say on his chosen topics is still instructive. Peter Gordon, publishing partner at Addison-Wesley and Donald Knuth’s editor for the last 20 years, explains that the success of the first three volumes of The Art of Computer Programming has allowed the publisher to build its entire computer science line around Knuth’s work. “Don has his own life plan and his own sense of timing,” he notes. “He’s such a creative and gifted author, the best any editor can do is stay out of his way and let him follow his plan.”

It helps that the book continues to draw praise from other seers in the digital realm. In his syndicated newspaper column, Bill Gates once responded to a reader: “If you think you’re a really good programmer, or if you want to challenge your knowledge, read The Art of Computer Programming, by Donald Knuth.” Gates described his own encounter with the book: “It took incredible discipline, and several months, for me to read it. I studied 20 pages, put it away for a week, and came back for another 20 pages. If somebody is so brash that they think they know everything, Knuth will help them understand that the world is deep and complicated. If you can read the whole thing, send me a resume.”

What sustains Knuth through his epic project is his fundamental love of the subject. “People who work on the analysis of algorithms have double happiness,” he says, sounding Yoda-like. “You are happy when you solve a problem and again when people smile using your solution in their software.”

Before he can rest in the promised land, Knuth faces one last mountain. He must redesign the generalized computer used in his book for programming examples and exercises from a 50-year-old von Neumann-style machine with inefficient commands to a more modern RISC (reduced instruction set computer) system permitting faster operation. (Intel processors in most PCs are of the older variety; PowerPC chips in recent Macintosh models are RISC.) “I’m trying to design it so it’s 10 years ahead of its time,” says Knuth. “I’ve studied all the machines we have now and tried to take their nicest features and put them all together.” This super RISC machine, which he calls MMIX, is essentially a teaching concept. But he says he “would love to see it built. I’m spending a lot of time documenting it so someone could build it. The design will be in the public domain.” In the midst of his “Computer Musings” series of introductory talks on MMIX, Knuth is mere months away from completing this phase of his work.

And then? “I start charging away on Volume 4 at top speed. I can write about one publishable page a day,” he says. On another book he once wrote at a rate of two pages a day “but that was too much. I couldn’t be a good husband and a good father and that was not good. So, I’m just promising 250 pages a year for Volume 4.” For devotees of Knuth’s software Bible, Bill Gates included, those pages can’t come soon enough.

As for Knuth’s unwavering confidence in pursuing his long-term goal, biology seems to be on his side. His mother is 87, in good health-still working, he says, in real estate office management. His father, who started him on the path to computer typography, died at 62. Still, this digital patriarch concludes: “My father’s father lived to be 97, so I’m hoping to take after him.”

Before he does reach the advanced age required to complete all his publishing plans, Knuth may have to face the temptations that come with fame. A two-page magazine ad for fatbrain.com proclaims, over an edgy collage: “Presenting the only bookstore on earth where Donald Knuth outsells John Grisham a billion to one.” This may be the first commercial acknowledgment of Knuth’s iconic status among the digerati. Will such recognition lead to a plague of attention just when the sage of software is about to resume his journey toward completion of his life’s mission? It makes you wonder how much longer Moses might have wandered the desert had today’s media been around.

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