Knuth at Google Tech Talks
Sunday, 03 April 2011

Donald Knuth, whose on-going project is to write his seminal multi-tomed work "The Art of Computer Programming", last month made a rare public appearance at Google Tech where his talk was recorded. 


On March 24 2011, Donald Knuth, a computer science legend, gave a Google Tech talk. It's interesting but very difficult to listen to because of Knuth's less than perfect presentation.



Donald Knuth has been described as the Euclid of computer science. He began work on his epic "The Art of Computer Programming" in 1965 and is still working on it, with Knuth is best known as the author of "The Art of Computer Programming", Volume 4A of which was published on January 12, 2001 and his plans for the remainder of the work can be seen on website devoted to the opus.

The quote of the session is most probably:

"It's  not easy to read my books but it could be a lot harder"

Knuth is also the inventor of TeX, a language for typography, and has a deep and practical interest in music, having designed a baroque pipe organ for a Church and made a smaller version for his home!




Some highlights

What should Google and the rest of the computer industry be working on? This elicited a very personal complaint that Google Maps no longer provided GPS co-ordinates of a location when you clicked on it. Apparently this worked until recently and Knuth would like it back please. (Later a member of the audience explained how to turn it back on!)

On the subject of literate programming - his invention -

"there is a certain percentage of people who like to write and a certain percentage of people who can program - literate programming is liked by the intersection of the two".

When asked about the difficult problem of searching for something that the user doesn't know the name of - his answer was to turn to your circle of friends and ask.

One question was how many proofs of P not equal to NP have you seen in your career. The answer was clearly a lot. On the difference between computer science and maths, Knuth points out that maths doesn't handle the idea of assignment at all well within their unified axiom systems. However he does make the point that without a mathematical background in proof and axiom systems computer science is difficult.

As to the future, he noted that few children learn programming today and estimates that about two people in a hundred have the programming gift. How best to get children interested in computing? Provide them a way to be creative and facilitate the sharing of their creations.

When the inventor of the TeX typographic system was asked what he thought about the state of the art, specifically on the web his response was that "he was upbeat about it - his Nexus S has "beautiful fonts". 

Finally a question about Knuth's pipe organ revealed that Alan Kay also has one.

Further reading:

Donald Knuth and the Art of Programming

The Art of Computer Programming, Volume 4, Fascicle 1  (book review)

The Art of Computer Programming, Volume 4A (book review, coming soon)

Some of the ideas that Knuth discussed about the nature of programming are also the topic of: What makes a programmer.


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