THINGS A COMPUTER SCIENTIST RARELY TALKS ABOUT, Interactions Between Faith and Computer Science, by Donald E. Knuth. Stanford, California: CSLI Publications, 2001. 230 pages, index, notes. Hardback; $35.00. ISBN 1-57586-327-8.
On October 6, 1999, Donald E. Knuth, Professor Emeritus of the Art of Computer Programming at Stanford University, "The Father of Computer Science," stood before a critical audience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and began a series of six lectures on how his Lutheran viewpoints on God and his devotion to his craft had intersected in his life, in particular when he composed a devotional book titled simply 3:16 (1990). This book is written from his lecture transcripts, including the question/answer sessions which took place after his prepared remarks. It also contains an excellent Foreword by Anne Foerst of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and an edited transcript of a panel discussion between Knuth and four other computer scientists, Harry Lewis of Harvard, Guy Steele Jr. of Sun Microsystems, Manuela Velosa of Carnegie Mellon, and Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corporation. The subject of the panel discussion was "Creativity, Spirituality, and Computer Science."
Computer science, with mathematics, stands in a way outside other sciences, which deal with causality in the material world. The artifacts of computer science are all man-made, and the outsider might well think of the discipline as only another branch of engineering. After reading this fine volume, I think most people will be persuaded otherwise. Knuth explores the faith/vocation interface, and how a career in computer science led to both a unique and a deeper understanding of God. The "3:16 project," a labor of love, led Knuth into a study of aesthetics, language translation and theological history. His journey is told in gripping terms; one quickly senses the deeply humanistic and deeply religious man as the story unfolds.
Two quotations serve to illustrate Knuth's thinking. On page 146, he writes: "...I learned that the policy of continually asking and trying to answer the difficult and unanswerable questions is far better, from God's point of view, than the alternative of ignoring those questions." And on page 148, "The important thing to me ... is not the destination, but the journey. ... the real purpose of playing golf is not to put the ball in the hole."
This book is "required reading" for those who are both curious and serious about their faith, particularly those who see in the discipline of computer science more than just a nother gee whiz technology. It is a great book, written by a great person, written from his heart. Please don't miss it.
Reviewed by John W. Burgeson,
IBM Corporation (retired),
Submitted to PERSPECTIVES 10/3/2003.