Born in 1938, American computing pioneer Donald Knuth is known for his greatly influential multi-volume work, 'The Art of Computer Programming', his novel 'Surreal Numbers', his invention of TeX and METAFONT electronic publishing tools and his quirky sense of humor.
My parents were asked whether or not they should advance me a... a grade, because I was doing well in school. And they… in fact I was born in January, which meant that I was older than most of the kids in my class, because if I had been born in December, I would have… I would have gone to school a year earlier, so I was one of the oldest in my class. And… and my parents, you know… a lot of kids at that time were being pushed ahead in school. And one of my friends […], you know graduated from college when he would normally have been entering high school. Well I… but, you know, I'm glad that they resisted this, because it… because it gave me this time for all these extra-curricular activities, so I was always into… into a lot of things. I mean sports; I was a terrible athlete. I was… I'm tall, but my left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing, so I would only get in the game after we were already behind by 50 points, and… but I was the scorekeeper. I was… I was a terrific scorekeeper, you know, so I became manager of many of the sports teams in high school, and I was… and also in college. I was manager of the cross-country team, I was manager of the basketball team, I was manager of the baseball team. So I was a six or seven letterman without being able to do anything athletes, you know, whatever. But I'm sitting there at the… at the score table during the basketball tournament, and… a basketball game, and like, I'm talking a mile a minute to keep the other scorekeeper confused, so that he wouldn't know, you know, if somebody said, 'Who's the fouler?' And I could… I could tell them, you know, who the foul was on, based on, you know, who it would be… most desirable for us to have the foul be on, rather than the person who really committed the foul, because the guy's, you know, very mixed up by the way I'm talking. OK, anyway, I don't think I won too many games at the scoring table, but I was… I was the person who went along with the team and kept the… and kept the scorebooks at that time.
But all these extra-curricular activities were something that I had time to do, because my parents hadn't advanced me, and so you know, I could do well in my classes but also participate in lots of other… lots of other things. Now my… but, you know, so here I am, doing rather well at school, but I've still got an inferiority complex. I'm still always trying to prove myself. I'm thinking, you know, maybe I'm not getting it well, and in fact… so I was probably taking, you know… studying hard and getting 100s on these exams, because I'm trying to prove that I… that I knew it. You know, if I was really over confident… so confident, I wouldn't have bothered to study. And that was… so that was one of the child's eyes looking at it. I'm always scared that I'm not going to do well, so I was working hard at… at schoolwork.
The funny thing was that my… when… when I was being advised what to do for college, well, everybody in my school took a… took a whole bunch of tests – national tests – and one of the tests was vocational, you know, what… what job are you cut out for? And I remember that… that, according to that test, I should be an architect, and I should not be a veterinarian. I scored extremely low on veterinarian skills, but… but for architect, that seemed to be, you know, the career path that was recommended to me. But the… and I won scholarships to… to different colleges, but the people at my high school, the Vice Principal called me in; he said, ‘Don, I think you're going to be a failure in college’. He said, ‘You know, you've done well here in high school, but college is completely different, and you're just, you know, it's just going to be too much for you, you're not going… you aren't going to make it’. And, well, so he scared me again, and when I got to college I kept studying. In fact, just the week before college, the… the Dean of Students, whoever it was, told us... I went to Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, which was at that time not yet connected with Western Reserve University. So I went to Case, and the Dean of Case says to us… says… it's an all men's school, says, ‘Men, look at… look to the person on your left, and the person on your right. One of you isn't going to be here next year; one of you is going to fail’. So I get to… get to Case, and again I'm studying all the time, working really… real hard on my… on my classes, and so for that I had to be kind of a machine.
I… the calculus book that I had, in high school we… in high school, as I said, our math program wasn't much, and I had never heard of calculus until I got to college. But the calculus book that we had was… was great, and in the back of the book there were supplementary problems that weren't, you know, that weren't assigned by the teacher. The teacher would assign… so this was a famous calculus text by a man named George Thomas, and I mention it especially because it was one of the first books published by Addison-Wesley, and I loved this calculus book so much that later I chose Addison-Wesley to be the publisher of my own book. But… but Thomas's Calculus would have the text, and then would have problems, and our teacher would assign, say, the even numbered problems, or something like that. I would also do the odd numbered problems. In the back of Thomas's book he had supplementary problems – the teacher didn't assign the supplementary problems – I worked the supplementary problems. I was, you know, I was scared I wouldn't learn calculus, so I worked hard on it, and it turned out that, of course, it took me longer to solve all these problems than the kids who were only working on what was assigned, at first. But after a year, I could do all of those problems in the same time as my classmates were doing the assigned problems, and after that I could just coast in mathematics, because I'd learned how to solve problems. So… so it was good that I was scared, in a way that I, you know, that made me start strong, and then I could… I could coast afterwards, rather than always climbing and being on a… on a lower part of the learning curve.
Trained as a journalist, Dikran Karagueuzian is the
director of CSLI Publications, publisher of seven
books by Donald Knuth. He has known Knuth since the
late seventies when Knuth was developing TeX and
Metafont, the typesetting and type designing computer programs, respectively.
Dean of Students, Case Institute of Technology, Cleveland, Western Reserve University, Addison-Wesley, Calculus, George Thomas