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The Computer Scientist Who Can’t Stop Telling Stories

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Donald Knuth and his book, The Art of Computer Programming.

Donald Knuth continues to work on his magnum opus, The Art of Computer Programming a book series he began writing as a graduate student in 1962 and has yet to complete.

Credit: Vivian Cromwell

Donald Knuth is a computer scientist who came of age with his field. During the nascent years of computer programming in the middle of the last century, a candy company ran a contest that summoned his talents as a 13-year-old. The contest asked kids to determine how many words could be made from the letters of the candy's name: Ziegler's Giant Bar. It was a well-defined problem with distinct pieces, just the kind he loved.

"I had an obsessive-compulsive streak that drew me to digital, discrete problems. And I loved poring over large collections of information," Knuth said.

Knuth methodically leafed through his family's 2,000-page Funk & Wagnalls unabridged dictionary in the basement. He even convinced his parents he was sick, winning himself two weeks away from school to work on the problem. After labeling index cards with headings such as "Aa," "Ab" and "Ba" based on the beginnings of possible words using letters from the candy's name, he went down the dictionary's columns noting words that qualified. He found that he could skip entire sections of the dictionary, such as pages for words starting with the letter "C," or sections of the "B" words whose second letter was "U."

The contest officials had identified approximately 2,000 words they could expect, but Knuth found more than 4,700. He was rewarded with a spot on television and chocolate for his entire class. He would go on to win many more accolades, including the first ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award, the National Medal of Science and the A.M. Turing Award.

Knuth eventually merged his dual loves of discrete digital problems and large collections of information in his magnum opus, The Art of Computer Programming — a book series he began writing as a graduate student in 1962 and has yet to complete. He published volume 1 in 1968, and it's currently in its 27th printing. Volume 2 followed in 1969 and volume 3 in 1973. By then he was a computer science professor at Stanford University, but he worried that his work would prevent him from completing his books. So he took a leave of absence in 1990 and then retired in 1993 to spend the rest of his life completing the seven-volume set. Now 82, he's hard at work on part B of volume 4, and he anticipates that the book will have at least parts A through F.


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