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The Yoda of Silicon Valley


Donald Knuth at his home in Stanford, CA.

Donald Knuth is known for introducing the notion of literate programming, emphasizing the importance of writing code that is readable by humans as well as computers.

Credit: Brian Flaherty/The New York Times

For half a century, the Stanford computer scientist Donald Knuth, who bears a slight resemblance to Yoda — albeit standing 6-foot-4 and wearing glasses — has reigned as the spirit-guide of the algorithmic realm.

He is the author of "The Art of Computer Programming," a continuing four-volume opus that is his life's work. The first volume debuted in 1968, and the collected volumes (sold as a boxed set for about $250) were included by American Scientist in 2013 on its list of books that shaped the last century of science — alongside a special edition of "The Autobiography of Charles Darwin," Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff," Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" and monographs by Albert Einstein, John von Neumann and Richard Feynman.

With more than one million copies in print, "The Art of Computer Programming" is the Bible of its field. "Like an actual bible, it is long and comprehensive; no other book is as comprehensive," said Peter Norvig, a director of research at Google. After 652 pages, volume one closes with a blurb on the back cover from Bill Gates: "You should definitely send me a résumé if you can read the whole thing."

The volume opens with an excerpt from "McCall's Cookbook":

Here is your book, the one your thousands of letters have asked us to publish. It has taken us years to do, checking and rechecking countless recipes to bring you only the best, only the interesting, only the perfect.

Inside are algorithms, the recipes that feed the digital age — although, as Dr. Knuth likes to point out, algorithms can also be found on Babylonian tablets from 3,800 years ago. He is an esteemed algorithmist; his name is attached to some of the field's most important specimens, such as the Knuth-Morris-Pratt string-searching algorithm. Devised in 1970, it finds all occurrences of a given word or pattern of letters in a text — for instance, when you hit Command+F to search for a keyword in a document.

 

From The New York Times
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