Reflection: Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About

I just finished reading Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About by Don Knuth. For those of you not in the know, Donald Knuth is a legend among computer scientists and professors of such. His magnum opus, The Art of Computer Programming, is incomplete, but it’s already revolutionized the industry and the first three volumes are going for about $160 on Amazon as of this writing. Sadly, I have yet to read one of Don’s computer science books (I know, I know…) but this one was a gift so I figured I’d jump in.

The book is essentially a transcription of a set of lectures Knuth gave at MIT in 1999. The topic is computer science and religion, and while I found the ideas interesting, nothing struck me as particularly profound or devotional-worthy. Indeed, this is not what Knuth set out to do; most of the lectures are spent describing some of his own spiritual experiences and ways to apply mathematical techniques to a spiritual study. Knuth does not attempt to generalize his own experience to our own – he is simply sharing what he has experienced, but it is his journey, not ours. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, only that one shouldn’t pick up this book and expect it to read akin to the devotional masters.

The most interesting part of the book for me is where Knuth describes the background and process of his 3:16 project, in which he studied chapter 3 verse 16 of each book of the Bible (with some necessary exceptions), and collaborated with calligraphers all over the world to include an artistic interpretation of each in the book. In this, I was primarily encouraged to go out and buy that book, because I was absolutely captivated by the calligraphy itself… Knuth’s comments on the book were like reading the annotations before the original story.

I was surprised that more wasn’t brought up about what computer science can teach us about the nature of God… perhaps, more than any other field, we craft schemes and build worlds out of pure airy thoughtstuff, and we have the ability to stand back and watch those worlds grow and change in surprising and wonderful ways. A panel discussion included as a sort of bonus at the end of the book touches on this with regard to AI, but doesn’t go too deep. I guess I’ll have to write the book about that. Things a Computer Scientist Ought to Think About. We’ll see.

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