“People think that computer science is the art of geniuses but the actual reality is the opposite, just many people doing things that build on each other, like a wall of mini stones.”
Occupation: Computer Scientist
Known for: Authoring ‘The Art of Computer Programming’.
Childhood and Education
Donald Knuth was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He attended Milwaukee Lutheran High School, where he already displayed a talent in mathematics and an inclination to problem solving. The most known episode that can serve as an example of his skills was the competition set up by Ziegler – a confectionery manufacturer. The goal was to find as many words as possible that could be created by rearranging the letters in the phrase “Ziegler’s Giant Bar”. Coming up with 4500 words, Knuth outperformed the judges who could only find 2500, effectively winning the competition. Donald was also interested in both composing and playing music and was part of the school band. Although a gifted and talented student, he had a difficult time deciding his further education path. At first he intended to study music but ended up enrolling on a degree in physics at Case Institute of Technology in 1956. During his time there, he came to a realisation that he favoured mathematics over physics and switched his major. He graduated in 1960 with a bachelor of science degree and was also given a masters of science at the same time by a special award. In 1963, Knuth was awarded a PhD in mathematics at the California Institute of Technology, with his thesis titled Finite Semifields and Projective Planes.
After completing his PhD, Donald remained at California Institute of Technology as an assistant professor of mathematics. While he was still a PhD student, he was asked to write a book on compilers. That’s how his most well known piece of work originated – The art of computer programming. This was initially planned as a single book, however, Donald quickly realised it would be impossible to cover the subject and concluded that 7 volumes were needed. The first one, Fundamental Algorithms, was published in 1968. In that year he also left California Institute of Technology and started work at Stanford University where he remained until retirement in 1993 and is now Professor Emeritus of the Art of Computer Programming. During his career, he significantly contributed to the development of computer science, his most influential work including Knuth-Bendix algorithm, TeX (a typesetting system used for e.g. mathematical formula), Knuth-Morris-Pratt algorithm and a lot of research on semantics of programming languages. To date, he has written 17 books and over 150 articles.
Awards and Achievements
Apart from the contributions he made to the development of computer science, Donald Knuth also received a lot of awards from various institutions, some of which include:
- Grace Murray award in 1971, of which he was the first recipient.
- Alan Turing award in 1974.
- National Science Medal in 1979
- 1994 – Adelskold Medal from the Swedish Academy of Sciences.
- John von Neumann medal awarded by IEEE in 1995
- Kyoto Prize for lifetime achievements in the arts and sciences (1996)
- Numerous honorary doctorates
- Donald Knuth used to pay 2.56$ for every mistake found in one of his books.
- He published 2 scientific papers in the year he completed his undergraduate degree – quite an achievement.
- He lacked confidence and did not believe in himself at school – the reason his teachers did not consider him capable of success despite his apparent talents.
- He was a member of American Guild or Organists and designed his own pipe organ.
- Knuth has been called “the father of analysis of algorithms”.
- Donald Knuth is a Lutheran and the author of 3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated – an analysis of the Bible using scientific methods.
- Out of Their Mind: The Lives and Discoveries of 15 Great Computer Scientists by Dennis Shas