Things a computer scientist rarely thinks about

By Donald E. Knuth

It used to be custom at the company where I worked to give departing colleagues a book by way of souvenir. Because the company was called Tryllian, the souvenir was naturally Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. However, there were people who already had that book in profusion on their shelves, and Otto Moerbeek was one of those. And he already possessed The Art of Computer Programming, the default second choice. So we presented him with Things a computer scientist rarely thinks about. And
now I have borrowed his copy and read it. In one sitting, between five o’clock in the afternoon and midnight.

  • Author: Donald E. Knuth
  • Title: Things a computer scientist rarely thinks about
  • Pages: 257
  • Published: 2001
  • Publisher: CSLI Publications, Stanford, California
  • ISBN: 1-57586-327-8

Because this is a very fascinating book. People who have explored this bit of website or who have known me for longer know that I am an Orthodox Christian and a programmer. There are not many programmers who regularly go to church, but Donald E. Knuth is one of them. Or rather, he’s a computer scientist, but c’est la meme chose, more or less. (One of the famous other ones is Larry Wall.)

Things a computer scientist rarely thinks about is the collection of six special lectures Knuth gave at MIT. He was already retired at that time, and had written the book 3:16, which contains a calligraphic version of all verses 3:16 in the Bible, and a four-page essay giving an analysis of every verse. In these lectures, he spends a lot of time giving his method and reason for this endeavor.

In one way, this is a pity. The lectures often descend into fond remeniscing and artistic appreciation of calligraphy and typography. Only the first and the sixth lecture delve deeper into the relationship — undeniable to me — between creating software and religion. In the sixth chapter Knuth quotes Dorothy L. Sayers, just as Brooks did, and just I would have done. Her Mind of the Maker is the manifesto of the creative intellectual creed for more than one generation, and as such it should have received an even wider dissemination. I would have liked more and deeper discussion.

As an aside, Knuth is ‘guilty’ of that particular ‘heresy’ which is so attractive to the very scholarly; namely thinking that it is not the destination that is important, but the journey. Not the answers, but the questions. This has been very well described by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. I like my intellectual pursuits, but I would prefer to be with God all the time.

The great and redeeming feature of all lectures is the Question and Answer section. What a great and intelligent public must he have had, to have so many great questions! I cannot imagine a body of Dutch students coming up with even one question like those.

The final section, the transcription of a panel discussion is almost worthless by comparison. In a panel discussion people seldom have time to develop an argument, and spend what time they have on being witty. There are one or two moments, one of them explicitly acknowledged by Knuth, but on the whole, no, not up to scratch. The rest of the book is far better.

As a final remark: each lecture is liberally be-noted. Only not be-footnoted, but be-end-of-chapter-noted, the worst kind of notes there are. Footnotes please! Only footnotes. On the same page of the text. Some of us are not so retarded we cannot read a text and the notes simultaneously, and we would like to have the whole picture in a glance.