Donald Knuth & The Art of Computer Programming
Written by Mike James   
Article Index
Donald Knuth & The Art of Computer Programming
TAOCP - An Ongoing Project
A Lighter Side

A sense of humor

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".

Knuth's humor is also evident in his annual Christmas Tree Lectures at Stanford. These were initiated in 1994 and the topic is traditionally something new about trees - the data structures - that he has learned during the year. In the case of the most recent one it was (3/2)-ary Trees. The list of all Knuth's occasional lectures at Stanford are given on his Computer Musings page and many on them are viewable online.


Knuth has received many honours which recognise his achievements. While most of them are for work related to  TAOCP the first one is in recognition of TEX . In 1971 he was the first ever recipient of the ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award, which is awarded to the "outstanding young computer professional of the year". The citation reds:

For the design and implementation of TEX, an innovative tool for the computer composition of documents of high typographical quality.

Three years later the ACM selected him for the A.M. Turing award:

For his major contributions to the analysis of algorithms and the design of programming languages, and in particular for his contributions to the "art of computer programming" through his well-known books in a continuous series by this title.

He was presented with the 1979 National Medal of Science by US President Jimmy Carter:

For his major contributions to the analysis of algorithms and the design of programming languages, and in particular for his contributions to the "art of computer programming" through his well-known books in a continuous series by this title.



He received the IEEE John von Neumann Medal in 1995 and the following year the Kyoto Prize for:

“Outstanding Contribution to Various Fields of the Computer Science Ranging from the Art of Computer Programming to the Development of Epoch-Making Electronic Publishing Tools”.

In recent years he has been presented with the Katayanagi Prize (2010), the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award (2010) and the Stanford University School of Engineering Hero Award (2011).

Knuth has also been invited to join many prestigious orgainsations. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975. In 1992, he became an associate of the French Academy of Sciences. He was made a fellow of the Computer History Museum in 1998: 

for his fundamental early work in the history of computing algorithms, development of the TeX typesetting language, and for major contributions to mathematics and computer science.

In 2003 he was elected as a foreign member of the UK Royal Society and became a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters in 2010.

He was elected as a Fellow of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics for his outstanding contributions to mathematics in 2009 and in 2012 became a fellow of the American Mathematical Society.

Knuth's name is used for a a prize for outstanding contributions to the foundations of computer science  established in 1996 and awarded by the Special Interest Group on Algorithms and Computation Theory of the ACM.

Extra-curricular activities 

Still, it wasn't all work. Knuth has had a lifelong love of music and having designed a baroque pipe organ for a church had then his own house built around a smaller version of it.




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. 




Related Articles

Donald Knuth's Christmas Tree Lecture       

Donald Knuth in Alan Turing Year       

Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming       

How not to shuffle - the Knuth Fisher-Yates algorithm       

Knuth prize goes to Microsoft researcher       

Knuth at Google Tech Talks       

The Art of Computer Programming, Volume 4, Fascicle 1       


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Last Updated ( Friday, 24 July 2015 )