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Finishing the Surreal Numbers


Writing Surreal Numbers in a hotel room in Oslo
Donald Knuth Scientist
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So we made the plans. I decided I would rent a hotel room for a week in downtown Oslo, near where Ibsen lived, so that I could maybe get some of the vibes from his… from his soul. And… and we planned that… that she would come and visit me a couple of times during that week, and we could have a little affair in a hotel room. We'd never… we'd always wondered what that would be like, you know. And so I could be an author for a week, and then, you know, and… and we could have this thing… fool the people in the hotel that here was… here was this woman visiting me to… you know, she's sneaking. So this was… this was what happened, and during the next few weeks I started, you know, I sort of wrote the first page of this novel in my mind, several times, and I had… when… I was riding a bus or something, I would think of another sentence.
So I check into the hotel in January, and it was probably the greatest week in my life. I… as I said… time, there was kind of like a muse there, dictating this book to me, and this is… I stayed in a mission hotel, it's a… it’s a cheap hotel run by… by strict… by the… by volunteers of the Norwegian Church.  They probably were… but anyway we had our affair. And… and students from America were staying at this hotel, from St Olaf University, Minnesota, and… and every morning, in Norway, at… at the hotels, we have a Norwegian breakfast, which is a huge spread, where you have… it's not like in, you know… it’s not like kippers in England, but it's… but we have certainly herring, and… and many other… eggs, and all kinds of other things.  And so I spent an hour every morning eating a very leisurely Norwegian breakfast, which was enough to last me till dinner time, and listening to all the American students talking to each other, and what they're saying to each other, and… and picking up the… especially, you know, I hadn't heard American English spoken for a long time. We'd been living in Norway for several months… for 6 or 7 months by this time. And so I could… I could remember some of the dialect, and some of the expressions, and my… my novelette is told in… in dialog form, so… so it was important for me to, you know, to have a sort of authentic accent to these characters. So I listened to what the students were saying, and I… and I, you know, ate… ate a lot, and then I would go… go to my room, and I would start… and I would start writing the book.
And as… the book is really only… it's something like opera, where opera, you know, has a good music, with a little bit of a plot, and my book was good mathematics with a little bit of a plot. And so I was developing the mathematics myself. I had remembered Conway had written down his stuff on a napkin – I had lost the napkin, so I tried to remember what… what he'd told me a year ago, and I tried to reconstruct it as… as the characters in my book were… were discovering the mathematics for themselves. I was… was discovering the mathematics from the… from the same ground rules as they were under, and if… if I would make a mistake, you know, I would think of… I would think of something that didn't work, the characters in my book would also then make the same mistake, and… and then they would recover from it the way I had done. So I… so the book was also [an] authentic presentation of mathematical research, in this way, as I'm writing it.

And so I would start up, and I would end up, in… in the morning I would… I… well I usually had something to go… to go on from the previous day. The first day I had… I had been thinking about the first page of the book for… for some months, so I was ready to start the first page, and then… I… I only had to pause when I got to page two, I sort of could dictate page one. And then… and then I would, you know… so I'd start writing, and then I would try to do some more math, and then I would get stuck. And I would run into a… a block. There was nothing to… nothing to, you know, which way to go next? What to do next? And so then I would go outside, and walk around in the… in the streets of… of Oslo, and it was a wonderful snow-free month at that time, and… and so it wasn't too slippery to walk on the streets in… in January, and… and you know, so about an hour, an hour and a half, just… just meandering around my hotel in… in downtown… the solution to the problem would… would occur to me.  And I'd get back to my room, write it up, and you know, then have a leisurely supper in the evening, Norwegian style, and then back to my room and do some… and do a little bit more writing, you know, get ready to, and then as I said, I couldn't turn the light out because I had to… I had to write – I knew what the next day's first… first few sentences would be, before I could go to sleep. I was really into this book at the time, as you can imagine.

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: Oslo, Norway, Norwegian Church, St Olaf University, Minnesota, Henrik Ibsen, John Conway

Duration: 5 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008