Everyone has heroes, but not everyone gets to meet them. This past Tuesday, I was fortunate to meet one of mine — Don Knuth. If you are in computer science and don’t know who Don Knuth is, I highly recommend you take a break from this post and do a bit of reading about him. He is most well-known for authoring his (still in progress) Art of Computer Programming, a compendium of all kinds of information on algorithms, but his contributions to computer science and software development reach far beyond that. He invented TeX (precursor to LaTeX), wrote Concrete Mathematics (a great mathematical foundations of computer science book), and received a Turing award.
I’ve been enamoured with Knuth’s work ever since I received Concrete Mathematics as a birthday present in my teens. His level of detail and precision in both his proofs and programming are second to none, in my eyes. Thus, when I saw that he gives a yearly public lecture at Stanford, I knew I had to find a way to attend. So, this week I flew to California to go hear his twenty-fourth annual Christmas lecture, which was on new applications of Dancing Links that he has found (and will be covered in AoCP Volume 4B, yet to be published). After the lecture, he signed a book of his and let me take a picture with him. When I told him that his work greatly inspired me, he encouraged me to attempt to find errors and report them, participating in his reward check program.
Some people would think it crazy to fly across the country to hear one person speak for an hour and a half, but it honestly was worth it. I got to meet a towering giant in the field of CS who has inspired me in many ways.