Donald Knuth in 2005
After winning a Westinghouse Talent Search scholarship, Knuth enrolled at the Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University), where his performance was so outstanding that the faculty voted to award him a master of science upon his completion of the baccalaureate degree. During his summer vacations, Knuth was hired to write compilers, earningmore in his summer months than did full professors all year. Such exploits made Knuth a topic of discussion among the mathematics department, which included Richard S. Varga.
Knuth started to write a book about compiler design in 1962, and soon realized that the scope of the book needed to be much larger. In June 1965, Knuth finished the first draft of what was originally planned to be a singlevolume of twelve chapters. His hand-written first-draft manuscript (completed in 1966) was 3,000 pages long: he had assumed that about five hand-written pages would translate into one printed page, but his publisher said instead that about 1½ hand-written pages translated to one printed page. This meant the book would be approximately 2,000 pages in length. The publisher was nervous aboutaccepting such a project from a graduate student. At this point, Knuth received support from Richard S. Varga, who was the scientific advisor to the publisher. Varga was visiting Olga Taussky-Todd and John Todd at Caltech. With Varga's enthusiastic endorsement, the publisher accepted Knuth's expanded plans. In its expanded version, the book would be published in seven volumes, each with just one or twochapters. Due to the growth in the material, the plan for Volume 4 has since expanded to include Volumes 4A, 4B, 4C, and possibly more.
In 1976, Knuth prepared a second edition of Volume 2, requiring it to be typeset again, but the style of type used in the first edition (called hot type) was no longer available. In 1977, he decided to spend a few months working up something more suitable.Eight years later, he returned with TeX, which is currently used for all volumes.
The famous offer of a reward check worth "one hexadecimal dollar" (100HEX base 16 cents, in decimal, is $2.56) for any errors found, and the correction of these errors in subsequent printings, has contributed to the highly polished and still-authoritative nature of the work, long after its first publication. Anothercharacteristic of the volumes is the variation in the difficulty of the exercises. The level of difficulty ranges from "warm-up" exercises to unsolved research problems, providing a challenge for any reader. Knuth's dedication is also famous:
This series of books is affectionately dedicated
to the Type 650 computer once installed at
Case Institute of Technology,
with whom Ihave spent many pleasant evenings.[nb 1]
 Assembly language in the book
All examples in the books use a language called "MIX assembly language", which runs on the hypothetical MIX computer. (Currently, the MIX computer is being replaced by the MMIX computer, which is a RISC version.) Software such as GNU MDK exists to provide emulation of the MIX architecture.
Some readers are putoff by the use of assembly language, but Knuth considers this necessary because algorithms need to be in context in order for their speed and memory usage to be judged. This does, however, limit the accessibility of the book for many readers, and limits its usefulness as a "cookbook" for practicing programmers, who may not be familiar with assembly, or who may have no particular desire to translateassembly language code into a high-level language. A number of more accessible algorithms textbooks using high-level language examples exist and are popular for precisely these reasons.
 Critical response
American Scientist has included this work among "100 or so Books that shaped a Century of Science", referring to the 20th century, and within the computer science community it is...
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