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A sense of humour
Monumental his work may be, but Knuth still manages to get some of the earlier "Mad" humour into it. The list of jokes in his books is long so I've chosen some of my own favorites.
The first page of my early edition of Volume 1 reads:
"This series of books is affectionately dedicated to the Type 650 computer once installed at the Case Institute of Technology in remembrance of many pleasant evenings."
The footnote to the index reads -
"Any inaccuracies in this index may be explained by the fact that it has been prepared with the help of a computer"
The index entry for Circular Definition reads
"see Definition, Circular"
There is a flow chart to explain how to read the book which includes steps such as "tired" with the yes exit going to "sleep". Step 18 on completing reading the book is "Now try to get your friends to purchase a copy".
The computer MIX is supposed to be the 1009 because this is the average of the model numbers of mainframes in use at the time 360, 709 etc.. but once you realise what MIX is in Latin numerals you begin to smell a RAT.
and so it goes on..
The books have been a remarkable success commercially as well as academically. In the mid 80s 2000 copies per month of each title were selling. It has been translated into Chinese, Spanish, Russian and every other language that computers are used in! Knuth has been honoured by being given the Turing award and the National Medal of Science by Jimmy Carter.
Still, it wasn't all work. He designed a baroque pipe organ for a Church and made a smaller version for his home! He took time out to write a novel - " Surreal Numbers: How Two Ex-students Turned on to Pure Mathematics and Found Total Happiness". The story is really an exploration of the number system invented by John Conway (better known for inventing Life). He wrote the book while on a sabbatical in Norway where he rented the hotel room that Ibsen used to write his plays. Next came the biggest detour of all.
In 1977 Knuth became dissatisfied with the look of his books and so he decided to do something about it. The few months that he intended to spend on the project turned into nine years. He invented TeX, a language for typography and Metafont, a font design system. All of the work he did has been placed in the public domain and the five volume Computers and Typesetting is the explanation of the theory, a user manual and a source of examples.
TeX is the basis of LaTex which is widely used in academia. It used by many academic journals and authors are encouraged to submit electronic manuscripts in this format which handles equations far more successfully than other formats. So again thanks are due to Donald Knuth.