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The emergence of computer science as an academic subject


Finishing the Surreal Numbers
Donald Knuth Scientist
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I predicted that it would take me a week to do this book.  Well, after 6 days I finished the last chapter, and on the 7th day I rested. And… and it was very… it was very interesting. On the 6th day, actually, was one of the days my wife came to visit me, and we went out to see a movie, it was called Butterflies are Free, with Goldie Hawn, I remember.  And then afterwards we walked around the… the King's Palace in Oslo, and it was… there was a wonderful hoar frost on the trees, and there's these magnificent trees in the Palace grounds in… in Oslo, and I was just entranced, looking up and seeing the snow-covered tree branches, against the dark blue sky. I'm just telling you this was such a week for me, that, you know, having this inspiration all the… all the time, of… of writing the book, and then getting – and I… and I… I was… I was in the second last chapter at this time, and going back to my room, then I would finish the last chapter.  But I'm looking up at the sky, and just seeing these… these patterns of these… of these ice-covered branches, and it's… it’s one of the great moments of my whole life, seeing this… seeing this, and Jill was on her way back home to our apartment.
Then I went back and finished the last chapter, and that was the 6th day, and on the 7th day I rested.  But on the 7th day, I tried to write a letter, to my secretary, Phyllis, who was going to type up the manuscript, telling her, you know, how to… how to do it. And I would start a sentence, and I would get to the middle of the sentence, and I couldn't finish the sentence. I mean, I'd been writing fluently 6 days, and then I got to the end, and the book was… was done, and my writing was done. I couldn't figure out how to… how to write a letter to… to Phyllis. Finally I got the letter done, and we sent the manuscript off to her, you know, it's all handwritten. She typed it up and sent it back to me a few… a few months later, and I sent the manuscript to John Conway in Cambridge, Mass… Cambridge, England, where he was at the… at the college there. Well, he politely pointed out that I had gotten one of his two rules… rules wrong, that the characters in my book had actually been working on a different… different system, not the one that, you know… his system was actually nicer than the one that I had… had done. Well, okay, not so bad. We came and visited him in… in England. We… we went to Cambridge; stayed at his house a few days, at Easter time, and I… and I learned about what I should have said, you know.  And… and we… and when I went back then to Norway, I took another… another week, and… and this time, not in Oslo, but in a… in a remote valley – one of the valleys that had actually, during the time of the Black Death, had… had lost all of its population.  And… and there was… there was a little rest home there, called Solheimen, where a lot of people came to spend a week in summertime, and… and everyone spoke Norwegian there. We ate at… common tables, and I would… and I would do my best, by that time, to speak to them in Norwegian.  But then, most of the time I… I went through the whole book, and… and rewrote it with the… with the rules that Conway said I should have used from the beginning, and it came out better. And I also had some other comments from a few other readers, who had suggested, you know, like my wife was a… there were some romantic scenes, and my wife was a consultant on those. And… and so on. So… so I took some readers' comments in, and then another week's work, and then I had this book finished, Surreal Numbers.
It's a completely different part of my personality from the… from the computer books. It… this turned out to be kind of a litmus test for whether or not somebody is a mathematician or a computer scientist. Some people think they're the same, and some people, you know… anyway, I… I know they're different, because the mathematicians will look at Surreal Numbers and think that it's really… it’s really interesting, and the computer scientists will look at it and say, this is my great… my greatest mistake, you know, why did I waste time on this… on this project? Well, I just got word from the publisher that they want… they want to do the 17th printing of Surreal Numbers. I'm supposed to send them the corrections, you know, by… by next week. And it's been translated into eight or nine languages, so there are some mathematicians in the world who appreciated this little book. It's about 80… 80… 90 pages, I think, of… small pages, but it turned out to be a… a little thing that… that, you know, I… I felt was dictated to me. I will never be able to do anything else like it, but it… but it was a great experience while it… while it lasted.

[Q] Have you ever had the urge to do another novel?

Well, no, but you know, while I was… while I was writing it though, you know, I was, like my eyes were open, like… like everything; I'm walking on the streets of Oslo, and I'm seeing… I’m seeing the birds, and I'm hearing sounds, and I'm, you know, aware of the world, in a way, because… because I'm writing… I’m writing something that makes… means I'm going to be writing, you know, about… about what my characters are saying, and so I'm…I'm, that… that automatically makes me much more receptive to the world.  So that was another part of this… of this experience, and I can see why a writer, you know, can… can get a thrill from that, because it… it… it sharpens… it sharpens  your own perceptions as you're… as you’re facing the… the task of trying to put something into… into prose. Yeah. But no, I… I mean I…I, you know, maybe I'll wake up in the middle of the night some time with… with, you know, but I… I think, I've always thought of it as sort of a once in a lifetime… once in a lifetime thing, and as I say, some people say it's my great mistake, too.

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: Butterflies are Free, King's Palace, Oslo, Cambridge, England, Norway, Solheimen, Goldie Hawn, John Conway, Jill Knuth

Duration: 6 minutes, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008