Geek culture Tech

Donald Knuth: learning from the best

September 26, 2018

Donald Knuth: learning from the best

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Donald Knuth; The Best Programmer Ever, right?

He defines himself as “a geek”, he was one of the main people responsible for laying the foundations of modern compilers and is considered the “father” of algorithm analysis.

Some of you may know him, or at least know his name, but he is unknown to the non-specialist public. However, when we refer to Donald Knuth, we are talking about a computer legend, whose life and work are plagued with achievements and anecdotes.

Some people even award him the honorary title of “Best Programmer in History” for the precision of his programs, especially the one called TeX, which only has a few bugs. In addition, we also owe him a series of volumes considered by many as one of the “Bibles” of programming. Do you want to get to know him a little better?

A brief summary about Donald Knuth

Today, Donald Knuth is a veteran; he is 80 years old and considering the youth of his discipline – computer science – it could be said that he has lived almost since its inception.

Donald Ervin Knuth was born one day in 1938 in Milwaukee (United States) in the environment of a Lutheran family, and a few years later decided to study physics at University. Despite his inclinations for programming, it should come as no surprise that he did not study computer science; at that time, computer science did not even exist, so programming tasks were carried out by physicists and mathematicians. Perhaps because of this, and because of his insatiable thirst for knowledge, Knuth completed a few years later also the career of mathematics. A few years earlier, in 1958, he had already written his first program.

The idea of capturing his knowledge to share it with the world was quite precocious. Already in 1962 he began to write the work that, perhaps, gave him greater fame; it is the classic “The art of computer programming”, a colossal work, projected for 7 volumes and we currently only have 3 of them (Knuth is currently writing the 4th one).

For many developers, The art of programming computers is considered something like the programming Bible, one of the most fundamental works written on the subject, and the one that laid the foundation for algorithmic analysis. It’s quite a big deal…

What about the best software ever?

Another of Donald Knuth’s milestones is his TeX software, considered by some to be the most perfect program ever written.

TeX is a word processor, which is commonly used integrated into the LaTeX system (among others), widely used in the academic world for the way it edits mathematical equations. In fact, TeX arose from the professor’s own need who, disappointed by the poor quality of the typography of the first volumes of The Art of Programming Computers, developed the program in order to have a higher quality text editing tool.

The truth is that TeX brings together some anecdotes that have served to earn Professor Knuth the honorary title of “best programmer in history”.

The popular thing is the reward, offered by the professor himself, for all those who are able to detect an error in the program.

The prize is $2.56, or what Knuth calls a “hexadecimal dollar” (the professor is also known for his sense of humour). However, it has to be said that this was quite successful; despite its complexity, the software is so good that very few errors have been found. In addition, most of those who have done so have not cashed the professor’s cheques, but keep them, with admiration, as a historical object.

Another curious anecdote is found in the TeX version numbering system. Following the usual methodology, when TeX reached version 3.1 it did not continue towards 3.2 as would be expected, but towards 3.14, moving closer and closer in its subsequent versions towards the number π (3,14159265…). In this regard, it is foreseen that this anecdote will have a sad and beautiful ending: the professor asked that the last version, after his death, be the π, and all the errors that he conserves then will not be considered as such, but as characteristics of the program.

However, let us rejoice that the teacher is still active. He currently combines the continuation of his volumes of The Art of Programming Computers with his lectures at Stanford University, which he holds the title of Professor Emeritus. Some of them can even be found online and although they are technically complex, they are thought to be excellent by experts.

Figures like Professor Knuth’s have been inspiring generations and the dissemination of his knowledge is still awaited by many today.

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And don’t forget to have a look at the other articles that we have published in this blog, we are pretty sure that you will like them…

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