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Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About (Lecture Notes)

4.0 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1575863269
ISBN-10: 157586326X
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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

In a series of six lectures delivered at MIT from October 6 to December 8, 2001, Knuth (The Art of Computer Programming), the "father of computer science," ranges over topics from free will and divine design to aesthetics and the complexities of language translation. Yet the centerpiece of the lectures is Knuth's explanation of his earlier book, 3:16: Bible Texts Illuminated (1990), in which he examined the Bible by analyzing the third chapter and 16th verse of each book. In each lecture, Knuth explores various aspects of that project, such as the ways that the random selection of "3:16" functions as a method for understanding the overall thematic threads of biblical meaning and exposes the intersections of faith and computer science. Knuth delivers each lecture in a breezy, informal style and follows up with a brief question-and-answer section. But the conclusions that he reaches are vague and simplistic, e.g., "the Bible verses I studied were constantly interesting and full of stimulation" and "God definitely wants people to be actively searching for better understanding of life's mysteries." If these lectures are any indication, readers will be grateful that religion is one of the things that computer scientists rarely talk about. In addition, since this book is simply a transcription of Knuth's lectures, it is recommended only for large academic libraries. Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Lancaster, PA
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From the Inside Flap

How does a computer scientist understand infinity? What can probability theory teach us about free will? Can mathematical notions be used to enhance one's personal understanding of the Bible?

Perhaps no one is more qualified to address these questions than Donald E. Knuth, whose massive contributions to computing have led others to nickname him "The Father of Computer Science"—and whose religious faith led him to understand a fascinating analysis of the Bible called the 3:16 project. In this series of six spirited, informal lectures, Knuth explores the relationships between his vocation and his faith, revealing the unique perspective that his work with computing has lent to his understanding of God.

His starting point is the 3:16 project, an application of mathematical "random sampling" to the books of the Bible. The first lectures tell the story of the project's conception and execution, exploring its many dimensions of language translation, aesthetics, and theological history. Along the way, Knuth explains the many insights he gained from such interdisciplinary work. These theological musings culminate in a surprising final lecture tackling the ideas of infinity, free will, and some of the other big questions that lie at the juncture of theology and computation.

Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About, with its charming and user-friendly format—each lecture ends with a question and answer exchange, and the book itself contains more than 100 illustrations—is a readable and intriguing approach to a crucial topic, certain to edify both those who are serious and curious about their faiths and those who look at the science of computation and wonder what it might teach them about their spiritual world.

Includes "Creativity, Spirituality, and Computer Science," a panel discussion featuring Harry Lewis, Guy L. Steele, Jr., Manuela Veloso, Donald E. Knuth, and Mitch Kapor.
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Product Details

  • Series: Lecture Notes (Book 136)
  • Paperback: 257 pages
  • Publisher: Center for the Study of Language and Inf (August 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 157586326X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1575863269
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #603,716 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
About two-thirds of this book concerns Knuth's experiences writing a book entitled "3:16." Knuth decided to study the Bible through a sort of stratified random sample: taking Chapter 3, verse 16 from each book of the Bible and studying it in depth. These discussions do have their interest, but I do not feel that "Things A Computer Science Rarely Talks About" really stands on its own.
A better title for this book would have been something like "3:16: The Story Behind The Book."
Consider chapter 4. This is mostly a series of stories about how Knuth and Herrmann Zapf asked many of the world's leading calligraphers to illuminate the verses he used. He talks about the suble colors used to print them, the delicacy of the originals (not fully picked up by a 600 dpi scanner and requiring pixel-level editing to prepare them for reproduction). It therefore can only be described as irritating to be presented with these pictures, about fifty of them, in the form of little 2x3" halftone reproductions.
I do not feel the book delivers much on the promise that Knuth will reveal "the many insights that [he] gained" from the work. He talks a good deal about the reasoning and the process behind the project and it is quite interesting, perhaps even inspiring in the sense of making one wish to do likewise. But his presentation of his own beliefs is rather muted and low-key. I perceive this as modesty, not evasion. Still, it is not what I expected. Consider chapter 4, again: we learn a great deal about how he feels about the esthetics of the calligraphy, how he edited them, how he dealt with issues like calligraphers who inadvertently made mistakes in the text. But are there really any religious insights here? Well, subtle ones, perhaps.
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Format: Paperback
`Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About' by the distinguished computer scientist, Donald E. Knuth, professor emeritus at Stanford, is a collection of six lectures given at MIT as a part of the "God and Computers" project started in 1997 by Anne Foerst, a faculty member at the MIT Artificial Intelligence lab.

For those who are not familiar with Donald Knuth's name, I can approximate his renown within his speciality as being comparable in stature to Bob Dylan in contemporary folk music or Julia Child in the world of American culinary writing. His professional accomplishments include the foremost texts on the analysis of computer algorithms and a groundbreaking creation of software for computerized typesetting. He is also a lifelong devout Lutheran who has written a prominent synthesis of biblical texts and calligraphy, entitled `3:16'. Much of this book takes us behind the scenes of how this book came to be. I will quickly warn you that as insightful as Knuth's lectures are, the introduction by Anne Foerst and the symposium at the end are not of comparable quality.

This volume is a great affirmation of how a person can not only embrace scientific and logical disciplines and still be a devout Christian. I am really happy to find Knuth especially beginning his fourth lecture with a reference to that great forgotten American philosopher, Charles Saunders Peirce (the inventor of Pragmatism) and how Peirce divided `normative sciences' into the rational, the ethical, and the aesthetic. Not only does this show that matters of religion, closely allied with the aesthetic, are really a different world of discourse than either logic or questions of right and wrong. (The distinction between morality and religion is an important matter, but not an issue in this book.
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Format: Paperback
In modern, Western, pluralistic, secular culture, it is currently still difficult for many to understand the interconnectedness of "science" and what is often called "religion", and to discuss many of the topics included in the text of this Knuth work. However, while this book could have been titled "Things that Society Rarely Talks About", the text specifically centers around the computer scientist and the software engineer. While the majority of "Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About" is in essence a transcript of Knuth's lectures at MIT, a transcript of a panel discussion also included in the concluding pages of the book, as well as the Q & A sessions following each of the 6 lectures, provide societal context in that the thoughts of other thinkers in this field are given argueably equal treatment alongside that of Knuth. I would argue that the content of the fourth lecture is a bit too much centered around the author's work on "3:16", but I found this material fascinating, especially in light of Knuth's third lecture on the difficulties of natural language translation and how this difficulty is not as prominent in computer science. As a software engineer, I consider this book to be an extensive (although sometimes incoherent) expansion to the occasional spiritual comments made by Frederick Brooks in his classic software engineering work, "The Mythical Man Month" - more specifially, the pages Brooks wrote on the "joy of the craft" in which he compares the joy of the software development process to "God's delight in making things", and his comments on "the delight of working in such a tractable medium" where one is "only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff". Guy Steele, of Sun Microsystems, notes in the panel discussion that "...Read more ›
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