DONALD E. KNUTH: boundless interests, a common thread

Computer programming is an art form, like the creation of poetry or music. --- Donald E. Knuth

Can Donald Knuth really be just one person? Included among the 150 papers he has written are three of the most important algorithms in the field. His magnum opus (he is currently writing its fourth volume), The Art of Computer Programming , includes original research and a survey of most of the field. Earlier volumes have spawned Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Hungarian editions. Over the span of a 30-year career, Knuth has found time to create powerful software systems for typography, to write on such diverse topics as ancient Babylonian algorithms and Biblical psalms, and to pen a novel. In his ``spare time,'' he plays the pipe organ which he designed.

Throughout his career, Knuth has received public acclaim and awards, including computer science's highest prize, the Turing Award, in 1974, and the National Medal of Science from President Jimmy Carter in 1979. Yet Knuth regards the accolades with a certain detachment. The bowl which commemorates his Turing Award now holds fruit.

Knuth was born in Milwaukee in 1938. His father, the first college graduate in the Knuth family, started as a grade school teacher, and later taught bookkeeping in a Lutheran high school. He also played the church organ on Sundays. Donald inherited his father's appreciation of music and education, particularly patterns in language.

I was mostly interested in what the teachers were best at. We had very good training in the diagramming of sentences. A bunch of us would have fun after class figuring out the parts of speech in sentences of poetry.

As editor of the school newspaper, Knuth invented crossword puzzles. He remembers enjoying the search for patterns in words.

He began winning awards early on. When Knuth was in eighth grade, a candy manufacturer sponsored a contest to see who could compose the most words out of the letters in the phrase, ``Ziegler's Giant Bar.'' Knuth decided to give it a try and came in first.

I found approximately 4,500 words without using the apostrophe. With the apostrophe, I could have found many more. The judges had only about 2,500 on their master list.

He won a television set (a pricey item in those days) and enough Ziegler candy bars for the entire school. In high school, Knuth won honorable mention in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search with an unusual proposal: The potrzebie system of weights and measures. With the care that would mark his later career, Knuth defined his basic units precisely: the potrzebie to be the thickness of MAD Magazine 26; a MAD to be 48 things; and a whatmeworry, the basic unit of power. In June of 1957, Mad Magazine itself bought the piece for 25, the first publication of Donald's prolific career. But music, not writing or science, took most of his time during high school.

I thought when I went to college I would be a music major. I played saxophone, but then the tuba player got into an accident and I became a tuba player. I arranged a piece for band that combined all kinds of themes off TV shows --- Dragnet, Howdy Doody Time, and Bryl Cream. I knew nothing about copyright law.

His plans to become a musician changed when Case Institute (later Case Western Reserve) offered him a physics scholarship.

The system channelled anybody with an aptitude for science into physics. It was post World War II and there was a lot of excitement in the field.

In high school, Knuth had found mathematics uninspiring. But at Case, Paul Guenther, who taught freshman calculus, persuaded him to switch from physics to math. Guenther became Knuth's mentor in the process.

I had never met a mathematician before. He had a good sense of humor, but no matter what you said to him, he was unimpressed.

In 1956, Knuth had his first encounter with a computer, an IBM 650 --- a pre-FORTRAN machine. He stayed up all night reading the manual and taught himself basic programming.

The manuals we got from IBM would show examples of programs and I knew I could do a heck of a lot better than that. So I thought I might have some talent.