CS Pioneer Knuth Releases Long-awaited Textbook

Trailing the last volume he published by 38 years, computer science pioneer Donald Knuth has released the first part of volume four of his widely respected series of books, "The Art of Computer Programming."

"The Art of Computer Programming, Volume 4A, The Combinatorial Algorithms, Part 1" published by Addison-Wesley Professional, runs 912 pages in length, and, as the name states, tackles the subject of combinatorial algorithms.

"Knuth's 'Art of Computing Programming' played a definite formative role in transforming the field of computing from its infancy stage into a respected discipline," noted Uzi Vishkin, a professor at the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies.

A painstakingly thorough writer, Knuth published the first volume of "The Art of Computer Programming" in 1965. Then, he planned to release seven volumes of the work. Volume 3 was published in 1973, and he has since worked on not only revising those editions but working on Volume 4 as well, retiring early to focus his efforts on the project.

Knuth, who just turned 73, expects to complete Volume 5, on syntactic algorithms, by 2020.

In this volume's introduction, Knuth confesses that when he drew up the plans for the books, he expected that there would only be enough material on combinatorial algorithms to fill a slim volume. Research in this field, however, has subsequently grown dramatically. In order to accommodate at least the most practical elements of all this new research, Knuth has broken the volume into separate parts, with this first subset, 4a, covering only the basics. He expects to issue additional sections--4b, 4c and so on--in the years to come.

Combinatorial algorithms are techniques for finding patterns within large sets of data. Scrabble players looking for the most valuable arrangement of their letters at hand are tackling a combinatorial problem. Typical combinatorial problems ask questions such as: Are their patterns within the set of data? How easily can these patterns be found? How many patterns are there? Can these patterns fit certain set of pre-defined criteria?

A powerful new algorithm can easily solve seemingly intractable combinatorial problems, Knuth explained. "The art of writing such programs is especially important and appealing because a single good idea can save years or even centuries of computer time," Knuth writes in a draft of the introduction.

Previous volumes of Knuth's series are legendary for both their depth and difficultly to digest. In a blurb for one edition of the books, then Microsoft CEO Bill Gates invited anyone who read the volume to send him a resume. Modern folklore has it that Apple CEO Steve Jobs has claimed to have read all the volumes, which Knuth had, also reportedly, doubted to be the case.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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