Don Knuth

by Kieran Healy on April 21, 2007

Via “3QD”:, a nice “profile”: of the great “Don Knuth”: who — amongst many other things — gave the world “TeX”:, which, together with its “various”: descendants, helps make technical writing beautiful and encourages amateur typophiles to “waste their time”: formatting their “work”:

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A profile of Knuth and as essay by him « Entertaining Research
04.22.07 at 4:47 am



B. 04.21.07 at 7:33 pm

While I have the ear of a small segment of the academic community, can I humbly make a request?

When you’re particularly proud of the formatting of some paper you publish, could you (somewhere) post the .tex file as well? I don’t know where my HTML skillz would be without “view page source”, and it’d be nice to see how people do their magic in LaTeX…


aa 04.21.07 at 8:43 pm

It makes sense to code HTML directly, up to a point. %(P=css)
For \TeX it makes about as much sense as writing your own software—maybe what you want to see are .sty files.

Or “beamer”.


Graham 04.22.07 at 12:29 am

I should note that typesetting mathematics can sometimes be sufficiently involved that the TeX encoding it can be worthwhile.


dbomp 04.22.07 at 3:11 am

Donald Knuth is a genius, but he’s too.. weird. If you want to contact him, you should make an appointment. He doesn’t get email. Well, until his secretary prints it out and he responds every three or six months.


nick s 04.22.07 at 4:00 am

Weird? I think that’s eminently sensible. He’s busy, on the kind of work that really does entail being in Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state.

b@1: as ‘aa’ says, .tex files shouldn’t ordinarily provide much enlightenment, because the smart (and programmatic) approach is to abstract all the formatting magic into classes packages, .sty files and customisations thereof. That’s part of the wondrous learning curve.


aa 04.22.07 at 4:08 am

#3 – The typesetting of mathematics in \TeX is effortless, since that’s what it is built for. But $\int_{-\infty}^\infty e^{-x^2}\dx$ isn’t \TeX encoding, other than the little macro for \dx that you have to put in to get the fonts right.

My point is that sexy macros are not generally going to be found in .tex source files.

And .sty files are generally a grim business, though some of them do beautiful things.


aa 04.22.07 at 4:11 am

ps the tex’s unreadable in my post – the blog software obviously thinks I’m trying to talk to it.


Donald Johnson 04.22.07 at 12:52 pm

Odd that the article says so little about his religious interests. He’s written a book about Biblical interpretation (which I haven’t read) and another about (in part) what computer science has to offer theology (I glanced at that one in a bookstore.)

He also invented a system for writing really big finite numbers–the up arrow notation.

10^3 = 1000 (nothing new there)

10^^3 = 10^10^10 (read right to left)

10^^^3 = 10^^10^^10 (read right to left)

10 with N arrows B means B 10’s with N-1 arrows between each pair..

In connection with theology, Knuth said once that he wouldn’t care if eternal life meant forever or only 10^^^^3 years.

For some reason I think coming up with a compact way to write inconceivably large finite numbers is really cool.


Donald Johnson 04.22.07 at 12:54 pm

Oops. That didn’t come out right–I should have used some other symbol for the arrow.


Kenny Easwaran 04.22.07 at 10:03 pm

Is there any good place online where one can learn how to write such good tex that you don’t directly do things in the .tex file? I never realized there might be any reason to play with the .sty files myself.


Bob Wieda 04.23.07 at 12:20 am


\addtolength{\textwidth}{50pt} \addtolength{\evensidemargin}{-25pt} \addtolength{\oddsidemargin}{-25pt}


\noindent {\Large Donald Knuth}


\noindent TeX

\noindent {\scriptsize Version 0.2 preliminary for review \today}

\noindent {\Large {\bf LaTeX Rulez }}



\item For a $\$1.48$ (if I remember correctly) Donald showed the world software can indeed be both useful and bug free.


bemused 04.23.07 at 3:38 am

When I had my first full-time job maintaining and enhancing a component of Stanford’s homebrew mainframe interactive system, Knuth once sent me a suggestion. It arrived as a stack of fanfold paper … the suggestion in the form of a banner.


Doug 04.23.07 at 9:21 am

“Odd that the article says so little about his religious interests.”

Or maybe, given that the profile is in an alumni magazine, not so odd.


Donald Johnson 04.23.07 at 3:32 pm

Why? I would think if you’re doing a profile of someone you describe what they are like, what their interests are, etc…

But I’m not very familiar with alumni magazines–I throw mine away on sight.

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