The World of Don Knuth

I was often astounded by the tastes, particularly the choice of literary works and movies, of Don Knuth who is a mathematician and computer scientist by training and profession. Most of the computer scientists I know are wary of reading anything outside their realm of knowledge. If you tell them anything about existentialism or postmodern literature, they will pay scant attention to you. Contrary to my expectations, Knuth is a different kind of person who relishes some of the finest books published in literature and movies created. Given below is an excerpt from a conversation between Sebastian Rahtz (SR) and Don Knuth (DEK) which tells you want I meant. The excerpt is taken from the recently published TeX’s 25 Anniversary: A Commemorative Collection by TeX Users Group.

On your recommendation last year I bought a copy of Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec, which I am still trying to read. I wonder while I’m still trying to read it whether you would like to recommend a film or a piece of music which has equal meaning to you as Georges Perec’s book.
I guess when I made my home pages, a few years ago, one of the pages listed books that I was recommending to read. There’s this incredibly different book by Georges Perec called Life: A User’s Manual, which is a combination of many different kinds of artistry. It has a mathematical basis, but still becomes, I think, a great work of fiction. He developed this book with 99 chapters. (There should really be 100 chapters, but each chapter was based on a lot of mathematical constraints and one of his rules was that you had to break one of the rules, so naturally it has only 99 chapters instead.) It is the story of the people who live in an apartment block in Paris. There are 10 floors and 10 apartments on each floor, and you go through the apartments — actually some of the apartments have several rooms — but you go through the apartments in the order of a knight’s tour. Eventually you find out about the lives of all these people, and there are many other very interesting constraints that he put into the book. Each chapter is a little short story, kind of independent of the others. Now you are asking if there’s something else analogous, in the domain of music or …
. . . or film. O.K. The closest thing in film is this new movie Run Lola Run, from Germany. If you were to do it the way Perec did it, you would have many more chapters, but Run Lola Run gives you a story three times. The first time ends in disaster and so Lola says, “No take me back. Let’s do it again.” So we start over and she does something slightly different in the first scene and then we go through the whole story again, but everything happens five seconds later, so certain accidents don’t occur in the streets and the whole plot changes. At the end of the second telling of the story it’s another disaster, not for her, but for her boyfriend, and that’s too terrible to accept. The third version of the story leads to a happier fate.

In music I suppose I think of a theme that had been proposed to Bach, I think by one of the noblemen of his time. He supposedly improvised a theme on that melody spontaneously, but then he was fascinated by it afterwards. During the last year of his life he prepared a manuscript that he left unfinished at his death, called the Art of the Fugue. That work is analogous to Perec’s, because the idea is to make a thing of beauty while working within tight constraints.

Berry, K. and Walden, D. (Eds):
TeX’s 25 Anniversary: A Commemorative Collection,
TeX Users Group, Portland, USA, (2010), pp. 14–15.

1 Response to “The World of Don Knuth”

  • Run Lola Run is one of my favorite films :). (And don’t miss Tykwer’s commentary. He’s done other excellent films too.)

    Christoph Wolff presents some convincing evidence (Bach: Essays on his Life and Music) that the last fugue in the Art of Fugue was actually finished by Bach, but the completion has been lost.

    Knuth is amazing, I agree :).

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