Knuth visited, Brains Limited


Lucky me, I did get a ticket to see Professor Donald Knuth deliver the 2011 Turing Lecture at Cardiff University. He started out by saying he’d been wanting to come here ever since seeing Yellow Submarine in the 60s because of some dialogue which goes something like:

“What do you call a big school of whales?”

“A University of Wales.”

What a fine country Wales is for a computer scientist, he continued, you have a place called Login. A village in Pembrokeshire, someone in the audience chipped in, it’s very beautiful. Wonderful, all the more reason to visit!

Openings over, the lecture turned into a question and answer session. If I’m honest, I’d have preferred something more formal, but having just completed TAOCP4A, all 900 pages of it, and Volume 8 of his collected papers, the “dessert” edition of the series on fun and games, Professor Knuth was in a holiday mood, and it was a delight to hear him field questions on the future of computer science, P = NP, literate programming, analog computers, brute force vs. elegance, and whether the increase in computing power diminishes the art of programming.

Yes, computers grow exponentially more powerful — but human appetites grow yet more quickly. And even if you have all of that power, can you be sure the computers are getting the right answers? This afternoon, Professor Knuth said, while strolling through Cardiff, he’d seen the famous brewery Brains & Co. Ltd. and thought, yes, that’s about right. Brains limited.


My thanks to Arkadyevna for permission to use her wonderful photo.