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A year doing National Service in Princeton


I want to do computer science instead of arguing for it
Donald Knuth Scientist
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There I was at Caltech.  And… but I knew that sometime… that I had to make a decision – what… what shall I do for a permanent position? Because I had never expected I would stay all my life at one place.  But I didn't like to move.  So I… so I knew there was going to be a time when I… when I should move, and to the place where I would stay the rest of my life. So what… where should… where should this be? My first offer for full professorship was to Norman, Oklahoma.  And then I was offered… that was at '65, or so… and then I got an offer to go to Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  But these were unsolicited offers. I… I started to… to wonder where I… where I should go, and of course I knew about Forsythe's enterprise here.  So I wrote to Bob Floyd, who was my best friend in computer science, and said, ‘Bob, what's your assessment about the different parts of the world? And… and wherever I go, I'd like to be your colleague, so the two of us could go the same place. You know, where would you like to go, and… and I'll see if, you know, if it suits me too?’ So he wrote me this nice, long letter, you know, telling about all the places in the world the way he ranked them, and… and he put Stanford up at… at the top of his list, just as I had tentatively put… put Stanford at the top of my list. And so… and so he said, you know, if… if I wanted to go to Stanford, the chances are he would like to do that too. So this turned out to be kind of a package deal that we… when we were negotiating with Stanford later, we'd say, you know, well there should be room for two of us, if you're going… if you’re going to make an offer for one. But I… I started to search for a permanent home, and I got… and the main four… the main four places that made… where we went through interviews and made offers and so on… the main four places were Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford and Caltech. And this was, as I say, taking place in 19… the middle ‘60s… in 1967 was when the main interviewing was going on… well '66, yeah, about that time. It was… the firm offers didn't come through until '68. But… but during… during 1967 was when there was a lot of correspondence happening.
And so I had… I could be a full professor at any of those four places.  And it was quite… each one was different. If I… if I was a full professor at Caltech, I would remain in the Math Department. I would be a full professor of mathematics there, and that would be my career. If I went to Stanford, I would be a full professor of computer science; also at Harvard and Berkeley. At Harvard it was… they had almost nobody in computer science, and… and you know, a very few students, very few faculty. My role at Harvard would be to help them build it up. And… and it was… it was a case where… well… well Caltech and Harvard… you see Caltech… I knew that at Caltech they wouldn't have a Department of Computer Science for a long time.  It was… it was a very much uphill battle because this faculty at Caltech is so strong in… in physics and in chemistry and biology. The physicists don't see computer science as important, except for how it helps physics. Biologists the same way – how… how does it help biology? They didn't see that the computer scientists might have problems of their own that… that, you know, that are interesting, not just as a service to other disciplines. And for this reason it looked to me really unlikely that Caltech would ever want to have a Department of Computer Science the way Stanford did. Harvard, the same story… at Harvard they wanted… they said they wanted me to be a, you know, Professor of Applied Science, and help them build up computer science.  But I knew that if I went there, I'd be spending most of my time arguing for computer science rather than doing computer science. And I hated that. I'm not a politician; I don't like confrontation. I don't like trying to persuade people of things, but I like them to come to the conclusions themselves.  So although Harvard was tempting, because I knew that it would be great to have… you know, a spokesperson for computer science at… at – where you have some clout there, and people listen to you – I...I wanted to do computer science instead of… instead of arguing for it. I had… I had seen a lot of cases where other fields… where the… like operations research was a… was a special case in point, where more than half of the papers in the early days of operations research were arguing for operations research than just doing operations research, just… just presenting the beauties of operations research, but saying why we need operations research. Well, I… I wanted to have none of that.  So… so I didn't, you know, sneeze at the offer from Harvard, but I decided, really that… that wasn't going to be the life I wanted.
I also… then I had Berkeley and Stanford, and I felt that all around University of California, Berkeley was the… the best university in the world from… from a total standpoint of all fields… and very attracted to the idea of going there, but they didn't have much in… in computer science, like Stanford did. Again… again, my role… my role would have been to build… more to… more to build things up – and I could live on campus at Stanford. This was a strong attraction to me, to be able to build a house like I have here now, where I can… where I can walk or bicycle to the pool every day and… and not have to worry about commuting. So… so I, you know, Stanford had already so many good students, and so… so many good faculty, I… I could come here and be one of the boys, and, well, men and women… one of the people.  And so I… I took Stanford as my… as my top choice, just as my… now, on the other hand, Stanford has standards, and… and I was pretty young, so why should they appoint a full professor at…at this age? And fortunately Volume One came out in print, just… just in the week when… when the faculty had to approve my appointment. I mean the… the people in other departments on campus, the… the Trustees and the other people who had to approve of… of an unusual appointment to a young person for full professor… and… and the book came out just in that week, when they needed… when… when that helped. So they were all smiles, and I… and I got my… my letter from Stanford saying, yes, you can come here.

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, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Stanford University, Harvard University, University of California, Berkeley, George Forsythe, Bob Floyd

Duration: 7 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008