Watch 110 Lectures by Donald Knuth, “the Yoda of Silicon Valley,” on Programming, Mathematical Writing, and More

Many see the realms of lit­er­a­ture and com­put­ers as not just com­plete­ly sep­a­rate, but grow­ing more dis­tant from one anoth­er all the time. Don­ald Knuth, one of the most respect­ed fig­ures of all the most deeply com­put­er-savvy in Sil­i­con Val­ley, sees it dif­fer­ent­ly. His claims to fame include The Art of Com­put­er Pro­gram­ming, an ongo­ing mul­ti-vol­ume series of books whose pub­li­ca­tion began more than fifty years ago, and the dig­i­tal type­set­ting sys­tem TeX, which, in a recent pro­file of Knuth, the New York Times’ Siob­han Roberts describes as “the gold stan­dard for all forms of sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion and pub­li­ca­tion.”

Some, Roberts writes, con­sid­er TeX “Dr. Knuth’s great­est con­tri­bu­tion to the world, and the great­est con­tri­bu­tion to typog­ra­phy since Guten­berg.” At the core of his life­long work is an idea called “lit­er­ate pro­gram­ming,” which empha­sizes “the impor­tance of writ­ing code that is read­able by humans as well as com­put­ers — a notion that nowa­days seems almost twee.

Dr. Knuth has gone so far as to argue that some com­put­er pro­grams are, like Eliz­a­beth Bishop’s poems and Philip Roth’s Amer­i­can Pas­toral, works of lit­er­a­ture wor­thy of a Pulitzer.” Knuth’s mind, tech­ni­cal achieve­ments, and style of com­mu­ni­ca­tion have earned him the infor­mal title of “the Yoda of Sil­i­con Val­ley.”

That appel­la­tion also reflects a depth of tech­ni­cal wis­dom only attain­able by get­ting to the very bot­tom of things, which in Knuth’s case means ful­ly under­stand­ing how com­put­er pro­gram­ming works all the way down to the most basic lev­el. (This in con­trast to the aver­age pro­gram­mer, writes Roberts, who “no longer has time to manip­u­late the bina­ry muck, and works instead with hier­ar­chies of abstrac­tion, lay­ers upon lay­ers of code — and often with chains of code bor­rowed from code libraries.) Now every­one can get more than a taste of Knuth’s per­spec­tive and thoughts on com­put­ers, pro­gram­ming, and a host of relat­ed sub­jects on the Youtube chan­nel of Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty, where Knuth is now pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus (and where he still gives infor­mal lec­tures under the ban­ner “Com­put­er Mus­ings”).

Stan­ford’s online archive of Don­ald Knuth Lec­tures now num­bers 110, rang­ing across the decades and cov­er­ing such sub­jects as the usage and mechan­ics of TeX, the analy­sis of algo­rithms, and the nature of math­e­mat­i­cal writ­ing. “I am wor­ried that algo­rithms are get­ting too promi­nent in the world,” he tells Roberts in the New York Times pro­file. “It start­ed out that com­put­er sci­en­tists were wor­ried nobody was lis­ten­ing to us. Now I’m wor­ried that too many peo­ple are lis­ten­ing.” But hav­ing become a com­put­er sci­en­tist before the field of com­put­er sci­ence even had a name, the now-octo­ge­nar­i­an Knuth pos­sess­es a rare per­spec­tive to which any­one in 21st-cen­tu­ry tech­nol­o­gy could cer­tain­ly ben­e­fit from expo­sure.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Com­put­er Sci­ence Cours­es

50 Famous Aca­d­e­mics & Sci­en­tists Talk About God

The Secret His­to­ry of Sil­i­con Val­ley

When J.M. Coet­zee Secret­ly Pro­grammed Com­put­ers to Write Poet­ry in the 1960s

Intro­duc­tion to Com­put­er Sci­ence and Pro­gram­ming: A Free Course from MIT

Peter Thiel’s Stan­ford Course on Star­tups: Read the Lec­ture Notes Free Online

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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