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TechReview: Interview with Don Knuth

Sep 08, 1999, 15:58 (8 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Steve Ditlea)

[ Thanks to Kevin Postlewaite for this link. ]

"Since the 1960s, Donald Knuth has been writing the sacred text of computer programming. He's a little behind schedule, but he has an excuse: he took time out to reinvent digitial typography."

"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 to keep the software multitudes at bay by answering frequently asked questions such as, "When is Volume 4 coming out?"

Complete Interview

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