The Art of Donald Knuth

25 May

The other day I had a few extra minutes before heading off for work so I decided to take a trip to my Engineering Library to check out a book I wanted to study over the summer. The book was called Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning, by Christopher Bishop. It’s preparation for a class I’m taking next semester called Advanced Probabilistic Modeling. Anyway, they didn’t have it. So instead I just figured I’d kill some time by checking out the usual sections of the library. I stumbled upon a book called the ACM Turing Award Lectures: The First Twenty Years: 1966-1985. Seemed interesting enough to pick up for a quick glance and I happened to check out Knuth’s Turing Award lecture. I really enjoyed reading the lecture and came across a lot of ideas that I’ve been trying to say before on this blog, although not nearly as eloquently as that of Knuth. To give a brief summary, the title of the lecture was Computer Programming as an Art, a theme that no doubt very closely resembles Knuth’s thoughts in writing his AoCP series. Anyway, I really should have read a lot of this before because I found it very inspiring. I’m going to just list a few nice quotations from the talk below:

Implicit in these remarks [that computer programming needs to made more into a science as opposed to an artistic, or imprecise, process] is the notion that there is something undesirable about an area of human activity that is classified as an “art”; it has to be a Science before it has any real stature. On the other hand, I have been working for more than 12 years on a series of books called “The Art of Computer Programming.” People frequently ask me why I picked such a title; and in fact some people apparently don’t believe that I really did so, since I’ve seen at least one bibliography reference to some books called “The Act of Computer Programming.

I thought this was quite interesting. It seems pretty clear to me that Knuth was a revolutionary in his thinking regarding programming, even when the notion of telling a computer a list of instructions to execute was something very new. I guess the process that the world took to master (if you can call it that now) the techniques of programming pretty nicely resembles, almost fractal-like, the process of learning of a single individual learning it for himself. That is, it starts by taking a bunch of seemingly random words, characters, numbers and putting them together in some haphazard fashion until the compiler stops yelling at you. Then the individual learns that in fact there is more rigor to the process than just throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. There is the evolution of the learning process from chaos to some order; a science if you want to call it that. But that’s very much only the first stages. Because beyond the beginning stages, everyone pretty much gets how syntax works and where to put your semi-colons and whatnot. It’s the style which is where the fun really comes in. And you may be able to define how many spaces there are in a hard tab or where to put your braces in some document, but the approach by which one tackles a problem is much more innate. That’s how we have neat little algorithms to do our bidding instead of trying to crunch out everything the brute-force way each and every time. Herein lies the transformation from a rigorous science back into something of an art form. I would argue, therefore, that the art of computer programming is an evolution from the science of computer programming, not its predecessor. Expanding on this a bit further is another quote:

It seems to me that if the authors I studied were writing today, they would agree with the following characterization: Science is knowledge which we understand so well that we can teach it to a computer; and if we don’t fully understand something, it is an art to deal with it.

I kind of like this definition actually. It ties in with my previous post about potential functions and how there is an element of creativity necessary to actually do something of substantial value in this field (as with any!). But therein lies the fun of it. To put it shortly, there’s gotta be a reason we still have humans instead of computers writing computer programs. Related to this idea is the following quotation:

The field of “automatic programming” is one of the major areas of artificial intelligence today. Its proponents would love to be able to give a lecture entitled “Computer Programming as an Artifact” (meaning that programming has become merely a relic of bygone days), because their aim is to create machines that write programs better than we can, given only the problem specification. Personally I don’t think such a goal will ever be completely attained, but I do think that their research is extremely important, because everything we learn about programming helps us improve our own artistry.

I totally loved the above quote. I think it does a great job of highlighting exactly what this whole post, and probably this blog, is about. The point here is that reading this speech has provided me with quite a bit of more inspiration. There is something quite nice about reading these words.

Finally, in closing, here’s the quote that explains, in part, the inspiration for the title of this post:

One of the first times I was ever asked about the title of my books was in 1966, during the last previous ACM national meeting held in Southern California. This was before any of the books were published, and I recall having lunch with a friend at the convention hotel. He knew how conceited I was, already at that time, so he asked if I was going to call my books “An Introduction to Don Knuth.” I replied that, on the contrary, I was naming them after him. His name: Art Evans.


Posted by on May 25, 2011 in Uncategorized


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2 responses to “The Art of Donald Knuth

  1. JellyBean

    May 25, 2011 at 9:19 PM

    Quite an enjoyable read for someone who’s heard so much about how beautiful CS is and how inspirational these people who have been icons in CS are, but doesn’t really know much about computer programming or CS. Probably because it’s more anecdotal/personal than technical, haha. But yes, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post; it was very engaging. Do continue posting. 🙂

  2. Jarrett Akal

    March 12, 2012 at 8:42 AM

    Thanks for another excellent article. Where else could anybody get that kind of information in such a perfect way of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I’m on the look for such info.


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