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Computer God Speaks About God, Computers

By Thomas Lin

In his syndicated newspaper column, Bill Gates once responded to a reader: “If you think you’re a really good programmer, or if you want to challenge your knowledge, read The Art of Computer Programming by Donald Knuth.”

Knuth, “one of the most well regard computer scientists in the world” according to MIT AI Lab’s Dr. Anne Foerst, is visiting MIT this Fall to give a series of Lectures for the the AI Lab’s “God and Computers” lecture series. During these lectures, Knuth will describe how he has applied his computer science knowledge to matters of religion. He will also answer individual questions on any topic, as he hopes to help help individuals, particularly computer scientists, answer any tough life questions. The Tech spoke with Knuth about his ongoing lecture series.

The Tech: What will the lecture series be about?

Knuth: The lecture series is about things that I learned about things, learned about God and about issues of faith and science. I’m telling a story of events that have happened to me that I find interesting and that I think other people might find interesting too. I’m not trying to change people’s views, I’m just trying to express my views and what I’ve learned. I’m trying to say ‘Here are something things that I think are neat. What do you think?’”

The Tech: “So what do you hope that the audience gets out of these lectures?”

Knuth: “I’m hoping that a few people will tell me that they really enjoyed the lectures. I’m sure that some people will think I’m crazy and off the beam, but I’ll just be myself and hopefully I’ll strike a chord with some people. Also, I had hoped that I’d have had people like me to talk to about topics like this.”

The Tech: Do you think that there’s anything special about MIT that makes this an ideal place to give such a lecture series?

Knuth: I thought, “If I’m ever going to give a talk about this, what better place to give it than at MIT?” MIT has such a great cross section of people who are well-selected. MIT also has lots of computer people who share my peculiarities. My method of teaching isn’t going to appeal to just any random person off the street. The people at MIT are a bit different than average people on the street. There aren’t that many people that they can talk to that might be able to give them the same kind of insight that I might be able to give.

The Tech: What is your connection with MIT?

Knuth: I’m a visiting professor for three months. I’m pretty much a hermit, so I usually don’t leave Stanford. The last time I gave a lecture at MIT was in 1975. Of course I have lots of friends at MIT, but everybody comes to Stanford too, so why should I travel?

The Tech: So how did MIT finally convince you to come then?

Knuth: Anne (Foerst) wrote a letter saying she thought it would be good to for me to give talks about how a scientist has another part of his life that’s not science. I turn down offers to give talks on computers three times a week, but this was a different kind of talk that I was being asked to give. It’s something that I decided would be better to do once in a lifetime than never. I doubt I’ll do it again though, because I can do other things better. I thought it would be neat to have a chance to teach more than just computer science for a change.

The Tech: What do you hope to get out of these lectures?

Knuth: A teacher likes to teach, and all my life I wanted to be a teacher, so what I get out of it is seeing people’s eyes opening and saying “Oh, wow, that was cool.” Also, if this turns out well, I could get a book out if it. And if it’s a good book, then I won’t ever have to do this again.

The Tech: Briefly describe your computer science background.

Knuth: Well, there was no such thing as computer science when I started, so I was a physics major, then a math major. During freshman year at Case Institute (now Case Western Reserve University), a computer arrived shortly after I did. By the end of my freshman year, I had learned how to program it. I got a summer job, where I was able to write programs for Case. Later, I went to Caltech to get a Ph.D. in math. While I was a graduate student at Caltech, [students] also had me as a professor. In 1962, I was approached to write a book on computer compilers. I thought “Hey, that sounds like fun,” so I started writing it. When the first volume of The Art of Computer Programming came out in 1968, it was amazingly successful. By the time I was 28, I had offers to become full professors at Harvard, Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, and Caltech. I chose to teach at Stanford, where I stayed until I retired.

The Tech: What is your religious background like? Are you knowledgeable on all religions?

Knuth: I grew up in a warm friendly environment and my family always always went to Church. My father was a teacher for a Lutheran School. I’m Protestant, and I’ve studied most branches of Christianity. I don’t know that much about other religions, however. I just know enough to know there are many connections. I also have a great deal of respect towards other religions.

The Tech: I understand that you learned a lot about the Bible during the 3:16 project. Tell me about the project.

Knuth: I decided to do the 3:16 project about ten years after I became a professor at Stanford. I’d go to Church on Sunday mornings, but the rest of the time, I’d do computers. One day it occurred to me that it would be interesting to use the methods of studying computing to study the Bible. Why should I have two different methods for studying these matters? Why couldn’t I use the same method to study both computers and the Bible? I decided to approach studying the Bible by using random sampling. I thought it would be interesting if instead of somebody telling me what verses to look at, I could just look at random parts of the Bible. I knew from experience that even if I didn’t find anything interesting, that would be interesting. I began a project to study chapter 3 verse 16 of each book in the Bible. I got the idea of using 3:16 because I was going to study this with friends at church, and I knew my friends would remember 3:16 because of John 3:16. In books other John, we would get a random sample of Bible passages.

The Tech: So what did you think about the first lecture that you gave?

Knuth: I was amazed that so many people showed up. I can get psyched by having a good audience. Professors have another life too. I was amazed by how many professors and people from Route 128 came. Also, several hundred people downloaded it, which means that some people are passing the word. I don’t know whether they liked it or thought it was funny or what, but that’s good. I don’t feel pressure except if there are that many people, because I don’t want to disappoint them. If I feel that I have something interesting to say, then I love to give a lecture on it.

The Tech: Do you plan to continue the question and answer sessions at the end of each lecture?

Knuth: The question and answer sessions are the best because I can’t really anticipate what people want to hear, unless people tell me. I think students learn more from how a professor responds to them than just from the lecture. Interaction is better than a canned presentation.

The Tech: So how do you plan to divide the lecture time?

Knuth: It should be about 45 minutes of me talking, and 45 minutes of question and answers. I’m retired though, and the first thing that goes is your sense of timing.

Knuth has given four of the six lectures in his series. However, as Knuth emphasizes, “Every lecture is independent. It’s not like you need lectures two and three to go to lecture four.”

Lectures are given Wednesday afternoons from 4:30 pm to 6:00 pm in room 34-101. The official title of the lecture series is “Things a computer scientist rarely talks about - a series of public lectures about interactions between faith and computer science.” The next lecture will be given on October 27.

The topics of the remaining lectures are “Language Translation” (lecture three), “Aesthetics” (lecture four), “Glimpses of God” (lecture five), and “God and Computer Science” (lecture six). There will also be a panel discussion on November 17.

Knuth’s lectures in this series are also available for download from <>