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Back to work at Stanford and taking early retirement


Giving a lecture series on science and religion at MIT
Donald Knuth Scientist
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On the subject of religion I wanted to... I might as well go ahead a little... a little bit and say that, you know, not only did I... okay, so I'm publishing this book and I'm thinking that... that people are mostly going to say that Knuth is off his rocker because he's publishing a book about the Bible and he's... what... what he does well is computer science... you know, are we going to be able to trust him anymore and so on? But the reaction was - to my face anyway - was... was quite the opposite and a lot of people seemed to like the book. And the most surprising thing was at the... in 1999, or actually it was a... a year earlier, when I got a letter from MIT inviting me to give a series of lectures about science and religion, and... well, this is something I'm obviously unqualified to do but... but it was hard to just turn down the letter and say forget it because, well, it... it was sort of something that I'd thought about a lot during my life and I thought maybe... maybe some of the experiences I had could be relevant to other people who are wrestling with the same things in their minds, and... and so... so if I was ever... you know, if I... if I was never going to talk about these things in my life that was one thing or would I feel incomplete if I didn't do something about it? On the other hand I certainly didn't want this to be my career where I'm... where I'm, you know, not... going out on a religious circuit or something. So... but...but on balance I figured, okay, let's... let's think of it as a win-win situation. I'll go and... and hope that 'the Force is with me' and I can say something of interest to people and if I was ever going to do it one off and once... once in my life where could I... where better than in Boston where I had spent most of the time in the library studying and looking at these theological works and... and where I got an audience at... at MIT, how... you know, ideal place to... to have a... to make an influence if there's any such place. But they had asked me to give six public lectures... a series of six public lectures - an hour and a half each - and... and that's... you know, I have some standards where I didn't know if I had that much to say, obviously. So I decided okay, what I'll do is I will prepare only half of these lectures and the other half will be Q and A... will be just improvised responses to... to what the audience says. And if... and so, if it doesn't go well so what, I tried, I did it and it's over with. And if it... and if it... if people think it's valuable then that's so much the better. But I could... I wouldn't mind spending a few... a few months in Boston again - being a nice place to be - and I had some things I wanted to look up also in the libraries while I was there, so... so I said, 'Yes'.  And I went then in the fall for three months in... at the end of 1999 to re... relearn the... the Boston experience. This time I didn't live in Back Bay, I lived... I lived near Harvard Square, across the street from the... the Observatory, and I took my bike every morning along the Charles River to MIT and had... and got a lot of... made a lot of friends there, you know, younger people that I hadn't known before... doing computer science. And then I... I gave my six... my six public lectures and a couple of others too about a computer I designed and things like that, other projects that were going on. And I got to, you know, to also to go... go to New York City a few times and I visited Will Shortz and was able to, you know, make use of being in the East. But here I am in... giving these public lectures, the night that... let's see the day... the... I think my first lecture I was competing with Jesse Ventura who was also giving a lecture in Boston that same day but... but I still had standing room only in this... in this hall of about 400 people - it's not that big a hall but it was amazing to me - and they... and they came back the second week as well. And we had... the lectures were sort of in the late afternoon, three or four times, and then... and then a pause and then another three or four times at... at weekly intervals. So in these lectures I didn't present the answers to any... to any of the deep problems, I just said, 'Well, look, I think computer science is wonderful but it's not everything in life and... and so there's other things that... that deserve attention'. And... and some of the... the paradoxes that I was confronted with, how did they affect me and... and sort of asking the audience, you know, maybe next time it's their turn to give the lecture and, you know, so... so it was more of like a focus group or something... no, it was more just like, you know, saying let's for once in our life talk about things that aren't... that aren't our subject of expertise but just how we balance... balance these issues. And so I had... I had great comments from the audience and great... you know, it was very... very stimulating to do these question/answer sessions and I also learned a lot from the people that I met there because there were... there were people from many different backgrounds. It was... it was, again, kind of a plus thing but certainly nothing that I wanted to... to do for the rest of my life. I've got to focus on The Art of Computer Programming, that's where... that's where I can do something unique.

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: Bible, MIT, Boston, Harvard Square, Charles River, New York, The Art of Computer Programming, Will Shortz, Jesse Ventura

Duration: 6 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008