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Honorary doctorates


Coping with cancer
Donald Knuth Scientist
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Last year I learned that I had cancer and hopefully now we've found it at a very early stage so that it won't be... it won't prevent me from getting too much more of The Art of Computer Programming written but... but I didn't know at the end of last year how... how bad the cancer was. And so I... I just want to mention a little bit about this story because it, you know, it's something that happens to... everybody's going to die but you never know what... what is... what it's going to finally do for you and everyone's going to have to face the... face this kind of thing once in a while so I just want to mention a little bit about how it affected me last... last year. I... I know... I'm now at the age where I... I... alot of my... I attend a lot of funerals of people who I've known and... and like my... my colleague, Bob Floyd, died a couple of years ago... and... and I... I have had, every once in a while, wondered about, you know, how to face death and it's certainly inevitable but... but I've... I always found that I... I was ready to die if I had finished a book but... but not a week before finishing a book. You know, that would be too... too terrible if I had... if I couldn't finish... if I couldn't finish the project. Then when it's... when it was done then... then, okay, it's all right again for a little while. After my father died in the '70s I was confronted with this issue and had to, sort of, resolve it in my mind as to... as to how I... how I should take it.  And I... I remember it took about a month before I could go an... an hour at a time without thinking about death, you know, and the questions.  But I... but I... I thought it through then and... and got a little more comfortable with it. And now in... in recent times I've... I've known of a lot of cases where someone died and we said, oh how... but... it was a happy ending because just a week before they were able to meet with their children or... or their friends and sort of get their affairs in order, you know, they all... they had... they had... time for... for kind of a nice summing up and everything was... was as good as one could... as one could hope for. So, well, the reason I'm saying this is because last year after I had the diagnosis of this prostate cancer we scheduled surgery for... for December, but I had meanwhile been invited to... to give important speeches in... in Europe, and especially at the... at the 150th anniversary of the... of the founding of the ETH in Zurich, the... the main Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, I think it's like the MIT of Europe. And so I was the... a featured speaker there and... and interviewed by all the... all the media and so on and I didn't... course I didn't tell my hosts anything about the... the surgery that I was going to... that's going to be taking place, and... but... but it was just like, you know, my talk went well, the people were all enthusiastic about the things I'd been doing, I didn't have an enemy in the world, I was sort of at, you know, at... at a summit. So if I was going to die in December in this surgery it would be one of these happy endings that... that I had known about in the other... it was even more than that because here I was, I mean there were... there were profiles coming out about my work and following my talk, well OK... in... at Zurich I got an honorary doctorate, it was... it was like my 31st honorary doctors degree, you know, more than Ronald Reagan has received, you know, I mean it was... not as many as Bob Hope but... but still it was, you know, amazing for computer science. And so, I had, you know... I'd achieved all the, everything except finishing The Art of Computer Programming that I... that I could have hoped to... to achieve in life. And then after... after Switzerland I flew back and had a... a week with my children and grandchildren where we all were, you know, had a... had a great time, and so if I was going to die this again would be just the perfect, you know, way to... way for it to end. And... and so the way... the way I looked at it was really that I've... I've had every... every possible advantage and... and gift, so if... if I was going to die in the surgery that would... that would be okay, that would be just, you know, a sort of a if anything... I wasn't expecting that I should... that I should... be upset if... if it didn't go well, but that... if it did go well, then I... then I would just say okay, this is... this means that I have a chance to do some more as... as a gift but not that I should... as a right, not as something that I'm entitled to if you can understand what I'm saying. And so... and it's not just something that I was saying but it... you know, I really, when I went into the hospital I... I didn't have any plans as to what I would do when I would get home again afterward, I just thought okay, if I get home I... I'll think about it then. And... and so I'm... I'm in this surgery for four or five hours and unconscious and then all of sudden I hear happy noises and people saying, oh, you did fine... you did fine, and all this...  And okay so, well great, I'm still alive, maybe I can go a little further, you know. It's no fun being... recovering from surgery but... but still everything went as well as could be expected and... and here I am today and... and I'll be starting a little bit of radiation therapy next month as a precaution but the prognosis looks pretty good. So... so every day from now on where my health is... is good I consider as a... as something that is... is a special gift, gives me a chance to do some more of what I do best... is trying to take the... the things that people in computer science have discovered and... and put them together into a story that can be understood by some of those who can't understand the original papers.

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: The Art of Computer Programming, Europe, ETH Zürich, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, MIT, Switzerland, Bob Floyd, Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope

Duration: 7 minutes, 41 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008