Donald Knuth and MathOverflow

January 15th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Yesterday evening, I arrived early for a dinner with a bunch of mathemagicians from the Joint Mathematics Meeting. At first glance, I didn’t recognize anyone in the restaurant lobby, and when I asked the hostess she confirmed that my party had not arrived.

On second glance, I did recognize someone in the lobby. His face was iconic, but it was his name tag that confirmed it beyond a doubt. I felt immediately nervous and to suppress it, I walked up immediately and introduced myself, “Are you here for the MathOverflow dinner?”

And Don Knuth responded, “Yes, I read about it on the site, but it seems like I’m the only one here. I wonder whether this is really happening.”

I said I’d check in with my friend Anton who organized the meetup, pulled out my cellphone and typed an SMS.

“What’s that?” he said, and pointed at my phone.

I was a little puzzled, but I answered the question at face value, showed him the iPhone, the touch interface, and the chat application, all of which seemed to amuse him.

“Maybe I’ll get one of those when I am ready to communicate again.” He told me that, in the meanwhile, he was still keeping himself free of distractions while writing. “Maybe, when it‘s done, in say 20 years… Though by then,” he mused, “the gadgets may get so complicated that I would never be able to figure it out.”

“Yeah, this one here,” referring to my iPhone, “is just the gateway model to the future.”


Our group size was intimate enough that we could huddle around Donald Knuth as he shared stories, one of which I paraphrase from his perspective:

Given that my life is so intertwined with algorithms, there was a time that I became fascinated with the idea of making a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Algoritmi (Latin form of the person from whom the word etymologically stems).

When I looked it up on the map, I was disheartened at the fact that it was in the Soviet Union, near the town of Khiva/Urgench in Uzbekistan. I’m never going to get there, I thought. It was the 1970s.

I mentioned this fantasy offhand to a colleague from the Russian Academy of Sciences. And two years later, he called me up to invited me on an official government visit to an Algorithms Meeting in Khiva.

So, not only did I get to go on my pilgrimage, but a hundred girls with flowers greeted us on the tarmac!

There were some visa problems, so the French mathematicians couldn’t make it. It was a nice meeting. We dedicated a town square for the erection of a statue to Al-Khwārizmī and I recently confirmed with Google Earth that the statue is in fact there.



He mentioned his 72nd birthday last Sunday, so in secret we ordered him a little cake and sang happy birthday!