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My maths teacher at Case and a difficult problem


Physics, welding, astronomy and mathematics
Donald Knuth Scientist
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I started in physics, and I... and I continued in physics; as I said, I liked my math teacher very much, but I was a physics major, and in sophomore year I had another very good physics… physics professor, and started learning quantum mechanics, and… and I had classes in astronomy, and… and also had a class called, well I don't know what it was called, but it was a laboratory class. All physics majors were required to… to know how to do things like welding. Now, I was always very bad at lab work, in chemistry lab, I was always the last to finish experiments, and I would… and I would break the beakers and get chemicals on my hands and… and burn and things like this, and start fires… things; it was bad, but when I got into this welding, this class where I'm supposed to do welding, it was just dreadful. I… I mean I… I couldn't see, you know, I wear rather heavy glasses, and we had to wear goggles while we were welding, but the goggles wouldn't fit over my glasses, so I couldn't, you know, so I couldn't wear my glasses and my goggles at the same time. So I'm sitting there with these… with these goggles that I can't see very well out of, and… and I've got this… this electrical thing, which is thousands and thousands of volts, where I'm supposed to be welding material, but the table is way lower than I am; I'm kind of tall, and so I, and so here I'm… I’m holding this thing way out of my range, and I'm supposed to, you know, I'm supposed to get, solder things together, or whatever you call… call the stuff, and… and when I was supposed to put, to get one thing attached to another, the teacher would, you know, would… would pick it up and it would fall apart, by its own weight.  So I was failing in welding class. And it was terrifying too, you see, with all this electrical juice going on in there, and me not being able to…

My astronomy class, I found out that it was very frustrating. I could… I could pass all the exams, in fact I got a 100 on every exam in my astronomy class, but secretly I hated the subject, and I decided that I would continue the classes as self-discipline, because I didn't want the teacher to know that I hated the class. And I figured, you know, I'm not going to be… I have to learn how to do stuff that… that I don't enjoy as well as stuff that I… that I enjoy. So I… so I studied very carefully for the exams in astronomy, but I really… And why didn't I like it? I'm trying, I believe it's just because I was just, I couldn't imagine how… they were so different from mathematics, in astronomy you would never be able to go to the sun and really know what it was like there. You always… you always had secondary information. If I would be an astronomer, I would never… I would… I would have to die before I would know anything which was really true, because it's all based on speculation. It's all based on our best guesses about the way the universe is, and nothing that you can really experience yourself, or prove correct. In physics, the same way, nature is beyond our grasp, and you don't know. But mathematics was different. Mathematics had this certainty about it that, where you could finish a problem, and you could say, you know, I know I've got the answer. And so I… I liked that. It was easy. It's much easier; you know, I have to admire the people who, the scientists who… who spend their life and never know whether they've solved the problem or not, they just… they just get supporting evidence for or against it, but to me, anyway, mathematics got more and more appealing, for the reason that it gave me some certainty.  Just the opposite of the reason why religion was appealing, because it didn't have certainty. I mean I… I would feel unhappy of the life where I had nothing certain, and life where I had everything certain. In either extreme… it's hard for me.

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.

Listeners: Dikran Karagueuzian

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.

Tags: Case Institute of Technology

Duration: 4 minutes, 43 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008