Person: Knuth, Donald Ervin
Donald Knuth is an American mathematician and computer scientist most famous for his contributions to the study of algorithms and inventing the TeX typesetting language.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- Ervin played the church organ at the Sunday church services and Donald soon became a passionate lover of the organ.
- Donald attended Lutheran schools and from the special emphasis that was placed on English grammar in these schools came Knuth's love of investigating sentence structure.
- During these first years at secondary school there were other signs of where Knuth's interests would eventually lead.
- The aim was to see how many words could be made with the letters of "Ziegler's Giant Bar" and for the schoolboy Knuth this was exactly the sort of challenge that he loved.
- The judges for the competition had only found 2500 and Knuth was an easy winner.
- At high school Knuth's interests were more directed towards music than they were to mathematics.
- Knuth played the saxophone, and later the tuba, in his school band.
- Although he spent much time with his musical interests, Knuth most certainly did not neglect his other school subjects.
- However Knuth had to plot his graphs by doing hand calculations for every value which he plotted, showing the same sort of dedication to putting hours of work into problems that he had shown with the "Ziegler's Giant Bar" competition.
- The problem was that Knuth did not believe in himself at this stage in his life and so his teachers doubted whether he had the personality, in particular the confidence, to succeed.
- It shows how undecided Knuth was about the direction his studies might take that when offered a scholarship to Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, Ohio, to study physics he accepted despite his previous intentions to study music.
- There were really two reasons why, from his second year on, Knuth started to move towards mathematics and away from physics.
- One day when Knuth was meant to be performing with the College band he missed the bus taking the band to the performance so, finding himself with free time, he tried to solve a challenge problem that one of his mathematics professors had set.
- Solving it earned Knuth an automatic "A" in that class and also the right sort of boost he needed to think that perhaps mathematics rather than physics was for him.
- Knuth already had his first encounter with computers in his first year at Case before he made the move towards mathematics.
- Knuth used his growing expertise at writing computer programs to produce one in 1958 to analyse the performance of the College basketball team.
- It led to some publicity and IBM used a photograph of Knuth in their advertising.
- Knuth was awarded two Fellowships, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and a National Foundation Fellowship in the year of his graduation.
- It is a real achievement to publish a mathematics paper while still a doctoral student, but Knuth managed to publish two papers in the year he completed his undergraduate degree.
- In the first Knuth describes an imaginary number system using the imaginary number 2iii as its base, giving methods for the addition, subtraction and multiplication of the numbers.
- In the second paper Knuth and his co-authors give two sets of five mutually orthogonal Latin squares of order 12.
- In the autumn of 1960 Knuth entered the California Institute of Technology and, in June 1963, he was awarded a Ph.D. in mathematics for his thesis Finite semifields and projective planes.
- In addition to the work for his doctorate in mathematics, Knuth had from 1960 begun to put his very considerable computing expertise to uses other than writing papers becoming a software development consultant to the Burroughs Corporation in Pasadena, California.
- Despite Knuth's remarkable mathematical productivity he did find time for other things.
- We noted above that the title of Knuth's Ph.D. thesis was Finite semifields and projective planes.
- After completion of his doctorate in 1963 Knuth became an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the California Institute of Technology, being promoted to Associate Professor in 1966.
- Discussions led to a decision that Knuth should produce a seven volume work covering much more than compilers.
- In 1968 Knuth was appointed as Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University.
- Knuth remained at Stanford University for the remainder of his career.
- Knuth has made many contributions to mathematics and computing.
- One particular contribution we should mention is the Knuth-Bendix algorithm, one of the fundamental algorithms for computing with algebraic structures, particularly with groups and semigroups.
- Another contribution, which has totally changed the whole way that mathematics is printed and communicated is Knuth's invention of TeX, a language for typesetting mathematical and scientific articles.
- Starting in 1976 Knuth took ten years off his other projects to work on the development of TeX and METAFONT, a computer software system for alphabet design.
- We should mention a few of the many further contributions by Knuth: semantics of programming languages; attribution grammar; the development of LR(k)LR(k)LR(k) parsing; the Knuth-Morris-Pratt algorithm which searches for a string of characters; and structured documentation and literate programming.
- The Knuth-Morris-Pratt pattern matching algorithm was published in the 1977 paper Fast pattern matching in strings.
- Knuth continues to publish important contributions to computer science, combinatorics and algebra, the topic of his doctoral thesis.
- For his quite remarkable contributions Knuth has received many honours - far too many to be mentioned in an article of this length.
- Let us mention a few of the honours that Knuth has received since 2000.
- In 2001 the minor planet "(21656) Knuth" was named after him.
- In 2015 Knuth was elected to Honorary Membership of the London Mathematical Society in its 150th Anniversary year.
Born 10 January 1938, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.
View full biography at MacTutor
Tags relevant for this person:
Algebra, Group Theory, Origin Usa
Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive