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Things a Computer Scientist rarely talks about

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Things a Computer Scientist rarely talks about is a book by Donald E. Knuth containing a couple of talks regarding computers and spirituality, aesthetics and language that Knuth gave at MIT a few years ago.

Donald E. Knuth, for those who haven't encountered him before, is one of the big computing heroes. Not in the dot-com sense, but in a reasonable one. His achievements include his 30 year work-in-progress series of books The Art of Computer Programming – which may have been inspiration to the naming of similarly titled books and probably has been read seriously be very few people –, the conception of TeX – which brought decently typeset papers to mathematicians, whether they wanted it or not and is one of the greatest pieces of free software –, an algorithm or ten and the Literate Programming concept which unifies programming and its documentation – which sounds very cool to me but I am not sure anybody actually uses it. From the works I've seen it seems pretty safe to say that Knuth is a very productive and rigorous scholar.

In 1990 Knuth published the book 3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated in which he approaches verse 16 of chapter 3 of every book in the bible both in a scholarly manner, by analysing the word and looking at prior scholarly discussion and artistically by having top calligraphers illuminate the verses. Unfortunately I haven' seen the book iself, yet, but even with at most cultural interest in the bible, I am looking forward to doing so.

Being a Knuth book, it is typeset in TeX. Although, remarkably not using TeXs standard fonts but, for the main text, Optima, a sans-serif typeface. It's rather legible for that – and Optima is very pretty for all-caps section headings. In other places there are quotations mixed in using Palatino, so fonts are mainly provided by Knuth's friend Hermann Zapf... if it weren't for those places where a variant of the italic font of the Computer Modern typefaces is used. Also the inserted images look distinctly like a TeX-job, i.e. not too good. So, while the book is definitely readble and has a really nice (hard) cover featuring yet another font, I wasn't overwhelmed by the layout.

The book is published by CSLI in their lecture notes series and is classified as Religion and science, Science–Philiosophy and Computers – moral and ethical aspects among other things.

I am tempted to say, though, that the book is an apology for the 3:16 project. Knuth goes into great detail explaining what he did and why. He talks about his technique of 'randomly' choosing the bible verses in the hope to get a good view across all the bible in limited time. He talks about how he went back to the sources and tried to do his own translations, without knowing Hebrew or Greek; Just using bible-specific dictionaries for this – an approach that probably works when done with the rigour that Knuth normally puts into things but which I consider a bit lifeless. He talks about aesthetics and science, surely a big topic when studying the history and philosophy of science. This is used as an excuse to show tiny reproductions of all those really cool illuminated bible verses. Finally, he and a panel talk about how spirituality and computer science go together.

Just that they don't really talk about that.

And that's, in my opinion, the main flaw of the book. It is interesting to learn about how Knuth started on doing the 3:16 book and that makes me want to get it even more than I did anyway. But then there's the shadow of spirituality and god lurking all over the book. But that's about it. The connection isn't really made. Just from reading the book it isn't really apparent why Knuth did all this. He probably is a believer but he doesn't make any straightforward statements on the topic (aside from the occasional use of the word 'god' as if it had a meaning).

My impression was that this is a topic Knuth cares a lot about but – perhaps because he is caught in the corset of scholarly rigour – doesn't really speak about. Instead, he ends up speaking a lot about how he studied the bible, formally, making references to future talks and dropping a lot of names (who all work at expensive universities or are reknown artists) – thus, apart from the artists, Things a Computer Scientist usually speaks about.

Interested? Then be delighted to hknow that Knuth has a typically efficient web page for the book, with a summary, errata – or bugs as he likes to call them on occasion – and links to, apparently broken, streams of the lectures.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

August 1, 2004, 14:54

Tagged as book, donald e. knuth.

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