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I want to do computer science instead of arguing for it


The emergence of computer science as an academic subject
Donald Knuth Scientist
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When I was writing the first volume, I was at… I was at Caltech, and I was advancing in the Math Department. I was still, you know, I was a mathematician, and I did… and… and in the early '60s, as I said, I never would have believed that computer science, you know… under any name, that there would be an academic discipline of this… of this sort. However, at Stanford – George Forsythe had come over in [the] late '50s to Stanford – and he had… he had, and a few…few… very few other people had a vision, that there was… there was something here that was… that was really… ought to be a part of every university's curriculum.  And it became known as computer science.  And he – I consider him the… the father of computer science, and a wonderful man – he… he figured out a way to bring people to Stanford, to build a department… and… and he started, he… he scrounged around the whole world. Everybody that he felt… he felt would be the best in what he saw as this emerging field, he… he would invite them to Stanford, and say, please come and join us here. And so he recruited… and… and operated on a shoestring. He… he was able to – he… he had the support of Provost Al Bowker, who later… later became famous for many other things, including Chancellor of Berkeley.  But Al Bowker was… was in Stanford administration and… and very supportive of… of Forsythe's ideas and giving him… giving him strategy on how to proceed. And so he was able to… even though there was no funding for this, he was able to… to get somebody to be part time, here, in math, somebody is part time in electrical engineering, somebody part time in SLAC, and one… one people… you know more and more people – John McCarthy coming.  So that he had the largest concentration of good computer scientists anywhere during the 1960s. And… and next week our department is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and we're going to be reminiscing about this time.  Well, it's actually the 41st anniversary, because the… the department began in 1965. And it… it was… and they had, I don't know, half a dozen students, no… or 10 students or something at the… at the very beginning, and then quite a few later on, but it was… it… it was, you know, a pioneer in this area of doing computing.

Now, I… I learned about the connection between computing and mathematics. As I… as I said first I studied grammar, and I liked the idea that… that the… the grammar of a… of a computer language could be studied with… with mathematical tools.  And I got into correspondence with… with Bob Floyd, who at the time was in Massachusetts, and… and I met him in the summer of ‘62, after I had written another compiler. I wrote a compiler for Univac Corporation, and met Bob in the… in the fall of 1962, actually, and he introduced me to a brand new thing – that you could actually prove things about computer programs. You could… you could not only fiddle with a program until… until it worked, you could… you could develop a theory so that you would know that the program would work. This was a revelation. I'd never… I’d never brought my mathematical side and my computer side together… computer side, I just was an engineer, fiddling. So Bob said, ‘No Don, look at this. You can… you can actually… you… you can actually be sure that your computer program is working, if you look at it the right way’. This was a great revelation to me, so I got very… I got friendly with Bob. I visited him in Massachusetts, he visited me in California, and I began to see that maybe there was a possibility for an academic subject of computing.

Forsythe invited me up to Stanford; my… my sister-in-law was living in San Francisco at the time, so it was a convenient time for us to come up and take a look at the campus, which was of course beautiful.  And George said, ‘You know, okay, Don, join us’. ‘Oh’, I said, ‘No, no, no. I'm writing this book, and I'm going to finish and my, you know, my son's going to be born. We've got to have some stability.’ But I knew that at some point in my life I'd have to make a decision… where was going to be my permanent home, instead of just, you know… I mean, I’m a… at this time I'm Assistant Professor. Caltech actually promoted me to Associate Professor after… after 2 or 3 years.

And… and I… I should say something about tenure, I guess. About that time there was a story in the Los Angeles Times. Students at UCLA were unhappy because a professor at UCLA hadn't gotten tenure.  And I'd never heard of the word tenure before.  So I want to Marshall Hall. I said, ‘Marshall, what is this word, tenure? What does it mean, that she… that she didn't get tenure?’ And… and he said, ‘Well Don, remember when you got your appointment form from Caltech last year, where it said you're appointed Associate Professor, you know?’ And I said, ‘Yeah?’ ‘Well there's a line on there that says the… the ending date for your appointment.  Remember that that line was blank?’ And I said, ‘Yes’. ‘Well’, he says, ‘that's tenure. You know… your job goes on.’ Well I'd never heard of the concept before, so I had tenure before I… before I knew it existed, and I'm glad, because a lot of students now are so worried about not getting tenure, that it interferes with their… with their professional development… that they’re… that they’re not… you know, they're spending more time strategizing about how to get tenure than about how… how to do good science.

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: Caltech, Stanford University, SLAC, Massachusetts, Univac Corporation, California, San Francisco, Los Angeles Times, University of California, Los Angeles, George Forsythe, Al Bowker, John McCarthy, Bob Floyd, Marshall Hall

Duration: 6 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008