The Father of Geekdom
Alum and famed geek Don Knuth talks computers, contests and pipe organs
Don Knuth, PhD, may be the world's most renowned geek—and that's just fine with the man who has been called the Father of Computer Science. Knuth simultaneously received bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics from Case Institute of Technology in 1960 and went on to become the author of more than 30 books, including the monumental The Art of Computer Programming. A professor emeritus at Stanford University and an avid musician, Knuth lives in California in a house built around a pipe organ. "A geek is not something you learn to be," he says, "you just are."
What makes a great computer programmer?
It takes a peculiar thought process, which I believe about one in every 50 people have, that makes them resonate with the computer. I turned out to be one of that 2 percent of the world.
When do you expect to complete The Art of Computer Programming, which you've been working on for five decades?
The first part of the fourth volume will be published by the end of the year, and there will be at least five volumes in all. I'm also editing Selected Papers on Fun and Games, which will be published sometime in the fall. Things I wrote at Case, as well as other places, are being reprinted in this book, including "The Chemical Caper," a short story in which every word is a chemical formula.
When The Art of Computer Programming is completed, will it be the Bible, the I Ching and the Encyclopaedia Britannica of the computer world all wrapped into one?
I don't know about that. [Laughs] I'm just trying to be a spokesman for computer science and do justice to it as well as I can. I try to boil down things that are the most important without dumbing them down.
You're famous for rewarding readers who find errors in your work. How much have you paid out over the years?
About $30,000, but most people don't cash the checks; they save them for souvenirs. I pay a hexadecimal dollar—that's 100 in base 16, or $2.56—for a mistake in my books, and I give even more to those who find bugs in my software. I sent one guy in Germany $3,000, which helped him with his college tuition. He found plenty of mistakes.
You stopped using email more than 20 years ago. Isn't that ironic considering computers are your life?
It's one of the reasons I've been able to write over 30 books. I have standards. I have to check over my writing. I couldn't do email efficiently; I couldn't just dash it off. It got to the point where everybody under the sun wanted to ask me questions via email, so I had to draw a line.
Is your interest in music a natural extension of your talents for computer science?
My favorite definition of mathematics is that it's the science of patterns, and music has patterns. So there's a lot of overlap between people who have a special love of music and those who are especially good at programming.
Why did you install a two-story pipe organ in your house? Couldn't you have settled for a more practical Hammond B-3?
It's the difference between butter and margarine, I guess, speaking as someone from Wisconsin. The pipe organ is the real thing. Sometimes I'll play it for several hours at a time. I'm not too bad, but I'm not in the big leagues.
What do remember most from your college days?
My work with the basketball team when I was its manager. I developed a way of taking more statistics than had been done before. I plugged all the numbers into a massive formula that was supposed to tell each player his true contribution to the game.
What's the story behind the candy bar contest you entered as an eighth-grader?
A radio station in Milwaukee, where I grew up, sponsored a contest in which you had to see how many words you could make from the letters of "Ziegler's Giant Bar." I realized there was a systematic way for me to go through the dictionary and find all these words. So I pretended I had a stomach ache and stayed home from school—for two weeks! I went through the dictionary and found 4,500 words. The judges only had 2,500 on their master list. That was an early indication of my geek streak.
Do you remember what you won?
Yes. The prizes were two candy bars for each of my classmates, a black-and-white TV set for the school and a toboggan for me. My kids used that toboggan years later. We got a lot of snow miles out of it.
At age 72, is there anything on your "bucket list" that you'd like to accomplish?
I would love to try to write a piece of music, a meditation, based on the book of Revelation in the Bible. Revelation is dreamlike, sort of mystical—not scientific. I doubt I could pull it off, but if I live long enough, I'd like to try.