Posts Tagged ‘Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About — book review’

Today’s book review is a “funny” book.  This is a book about a series of seminars which were held to discuss an earlier book the author wrote.  The book I just completed is titled: “Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About“, (2001©) and the original book was titled: “3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated” (1990©), both written by Donald E. Knuth. Basically, a world famous computer scientist (Knuth) wanted to “know” something about the bible.  Having grown up as a Lutheran, he felt he had a general understanding of the Bible, but he felt he wanted a “depth” of knowledge as well.  As a computer scientist, Knuth felt one way to accurately get the measure of anything is to do a random sampling of the thing, and provided you used a large enough sampling, you could gain a “probable” understanding of thing being studied.  He therefore chose to study Chapter 3, verse 16 of each book in the Bible.
Knuth found he had to study the verses immediately before and after the target verse to actually determine the meaning of the verse.  He also discovered a number of other things which he found personally interesting.  For example, in examining the works of others who discussed the various verses, he found there was general (and specific) disagreement as to what was actually being said.  He therefore went back and personally translated the verses from Greek and Latin.  Knuth then rewrote the verses as he understood them and approached a friend (a world expert in calligraphy), who in turn approached a number of other world experts in calligraphy and asked if they would each take a verse and “interpret”.
The series of verses became a an integral part of the book and later a world traveled exhibition which is currently (permanently housed) held at the San Francisco Public Library.  (And which I hope to make a visit to see.)
To make a longer story shorter, the book (and exhibit) produced a wide amount of interest which led to the series of lectures, which in turn led to the book I’ve recently completed reading.  For those of you who have been reading my blog for a while, just prior to my trip to Baltimore, I selected twelve books to take with me to read.  “Things…” was one of these twelve.  Before anyone gets the idea this was “planned”, the taking books was indeed planned, this book was not.  I found the book at my local Half Price Books store in the storefront $2 racks.  Complete serendipity!!
So much for background, how did I like the book?  I enjoyed it tremendously!  What are the things a computer scientist rarely talks about?  His religion, his faith and his God.  The lectures were interesting and faintly humorous.  The author’s brilliance (depth and breadth) are obvious and his humility is engaging.  Knuth’s reasons for belief are straight forward: Faith gives me comfort and I choose to have / keep it.  He seems to be perfectly willing to straddle both worlds: science and faith; and, more importantly, he seems quite willing to let others enjoy whatever faith (or lack of faith) they may have.
If there is a weakness in his book, it is his occasional lapses into trying to explain a facet of God by comparing it to a known (or unknown) in science.  For example, his comparison of infinity (God) and human ability to comprehend (or more accurately not comprehend) very large values like Super K – which he describes as 10 to the 10th power, to the 10th power.  Because this value is greater than the projected number of atoms in the universe, the “value” of the number is purely symbolic.  It exists as an imaginary number (symbol) which we can describe, but which is still not the end of numbers, even though it would be impossible to even write the value down as anything except a symbol.  The bottom line is we can never understand God, we can only choose to believe or not.  Knuth chooses to believe.
I probably found 50-plus great ideas or things worth quoting in this book, so you’ll have to bear with me for a while as I post them periodically.  I will be scheduling them, so you won’t be hit with them all in one go, but you may find getting them over the course of the next month just as annoying.  Once again, highly recommended reading!

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