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How does a computer scientist understand infinity? What can probability theory teach us about free will? Can mathematical notions be used to enhance one's personal understanding of the Bible? Perhaps no one is more qualified to address these questions than Donald E. Knuth, whose massive contributions to computing have led others to nickname him "The Father of Computer Scien How does a computer scientist understand infinity? What can probability theory teach us about free will? Can mathematical notions be used to enhance one's personal understanding of the Bible? Perhaps no one is more qualified to address these questions than Donald E. Knuth, whose massive contributions to computing have led others to nickname him "The Father of Computer Science"—and whose religious faith led him to understand a fascinating analysis of the Bible called the 3:16 project. In this series of six spirited, informal lectures, Knuth explores the relationships between his vocation and his faith, revealing the unique perspective that his work with computing has lent to his understanding of God. His starting point is the 3:16 project, an application of mathematical "random sampling" to the books of the Bible. The first lectures tell the story of the project's conception and execution, exploring its many dimensions of language translation, aesthetics, and theological history. Along the way, Knuth explains the many insights he gained from such interdisciplinary work. These theological musings culminate in a surprising final lecture tackling the ideas of infinity, free will, and some of the other big questions that lie at the juncture of theology and computation. Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About, with its charming and user-friendly format—each lecture ends with a question and answer exchange, and the book itself contains more than 100 illustrations—is a readable and intriguing approach to a crucial topic, certain to edify both those who are serious and curious about their faiths and those who look at the science of computation and wonder what it might teach them about their spiritual world. Includes "Creativity, Spirituality, and Computer Science," a panel discussion featuring Harry Lewis, Guy L. Steele, Jr., Manuela Veloso, Donald E. Knuth, and Mitch Kapor.


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How does a computer scientist understand infinity? What can probability theory teach us about free will? Can mathematical notions be used to enhance one's personal understanding of the Bible? Perhaps no one is more qualified to address these questions than Donald E. Knuth, whose massive contributions to computing have led others to nickname him "The Father of Computer Scien How does a computer scientist understand infinity? What can probability theory teach us about free will? Can mathematical notions be used to enhance one's personal understanding of the Bible? Perhaps no one is more qualified to address these questions than Donald E. Knuth, whose massive contributions to computing have led others to nickname him "The Father of Computer Science"—and whose religious faith led him to understand a fascinating analysis of the Bible called the 3:16 project. In this series of six spirited, informal lectures, Knuth explores the relationships between his vocation and his faith, revealing the unique perspective that his work with computing has lent to his understanding of God. His starting point is the 3:16 project, an application of mathematical "random sampling" to the books of the Bible. The first lectures tell the story of the project's conception and execution, exploring its many dimensions of language translation, aesthetics, and theological history. Along the way, Knuth explains the many insights he gained from such interdisciplinary work. These theological musings culminate in a surprising final lecture tackling the ideas of infinity, free will, and some of the other big questions that lie at the juncture of theology and computation. Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About, with its charming and user-friendly format—each lecture ends with a question and answer exchange, and the book itself contains more than 100 illustrations—is a readable and intriguing approach to a crucial topic, certain to edify both those who are serious and curious about their faiths and those who look at the science of computation and wonder what it might teach them about their spiritual world. Includes "Creativity, Spirituality, and Computer Science," a panel discussion featuring Harry Lewis, Guy L. Steele, Jr., Manuela Veloso, Donald E. Knuth, and Mitch Kapor.

30 review for Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About

  1. 4 out of 5

    Mirek Kukla

    "Things a computer scientist rarely talks about" is the written transcript of a series of lectures by Donald Knuth for an MIT course called "God and Computers." On the surface, this is a fascinating pairing: as a newspaper headline quipped, it’s not often that "a computer god talks about God." (viii) Sadly, these lectures are less about God and more about "3:16 Bible texts illuminated," a book about the bible Knuth wrote a few years prior. The vast majority of this book consists of Knuth talking "Things a computer scientist rarely talks about" is the written transcript of a series of lectures by Donald Knuth for an MIT course called "God and Computers." On the surface, this is a fascinating pairing: as a newspaper headline quipped, it’s not often that "a computer god talks about God." (viii) Sadly, these lectures are less about God and more about "3:16 Bible texts illuminated," a book about the bible Knuth wrote a few years prior. The vast majority of this book consists of Knuth talking about that book: why he wrote it, how he wrote it, and what he learned from writing it. Knuth’s thoughts on God and belief are sprinkled about sparsely, rarely addressed directly, and mostly show up as an afterthought. Since the chapters are essentially unedited lecture transcripts, the signal-to-noise ratio here is incredibly low. One gets the impression that Knuth only had a vague outline for each lecture and just kinda winged it. Each chapter is incredibly unfocused. Knuth often goes deep into random biographical tangents, and he rarely takes a step back to reflect. That’s not to say there’s nothing of interest here. Knuth’s beliefs do surface here and there, but the amount of noise you have wade to find a nugget of insight is silly. The most notable thing about this book is the fact it exists. If nothing else, this tells you that Knuth - the father of computer science as an academic discipline and one of the most brilliant minds of our time - believes in God. It’s something he’s thought a lot about and something that really matters to him. And that’s worth reflecting on. Just don’t expect to read about Knuth reflections on this topic. Sadly, these are things a computer scientist rarely talks about. Notable quotes "Theologians have basically done a good job." (5) "Some things are beyond rationality and proof, and I don’t think God wants them to be analyzable or provable." (17) "God definitely wants people to be actively searching for better understanding of life’s mysteries, even though those mysteries will never be fully understood." (145) "I think the Bible holds some of the best clues other than the universe itself as to what God wants us to do." (191) "I don’t believe in prayer for selfish things… I think of prayer as a conversation with God. Even if I didn’t know that prayer was effective I would do it anyway. It’s just something that feels natural." (195) "My fondest hope is that you continue to seek answers, even though the questions may be unanswerable." (198)

  2. 4 out of 5

    Matt Hartzell

    I thought Knuth's book was fairly interesting. This book is actually a transcription of several lectures he gave at MIT, on the topic of how spirituality, art and creativity intermingle with computer science. He spent a fair amount of time talking about the other book he wrote, 3:16, which kind of makes me wish I had just read that one instead. Knuth brings together a seemingly unrelated number of topics. As one of the most prolific computer scientists alive today, he is also a Christian. One th I thought Knuth's book was fairly interesting. This book is actually a transcription of several lectures he gave at MIT, on the topic of how spirituality, art and creativity intermingle with computer science. He spent a fair amount of time talking about the other book he wrote, 3:16, which kind of makes me wish I had just read that one instead. Knuth brings together a seemingly unrelated number of topics. As one of the most prolific computer scientists alive today, he is also a Christian. One thing Knuth is known for in academic circles is his research into random data, and how that data is representative of a whole. Accordingly, he wrote 3:16, an intense look at every 3:16 verse in the Bible. Knuth delved into scholarship by writing his own translations of those verses, based on the original languages. He also asked some of the the world's most distinguished calligraphers to create artistic representations of these verses. Popular culture would have you believe that any intelligent, educated person has thrown off the trappings of religious belief, so it's always nice to hear someone like Knuth speak openly about his faith. However, he did reach a couple conclusions over the course of 3:16 that I find highly suspect. One conclusion is that Knuth believes the journey is more important than the destination, in this case, Heaven. I felt that Knuth devalued Heaven throughout his talk, and while I think it is important to serve God faithfully in life, I think Heaven is much more important than Knuth would lead you to believe. He also concludes that in his research for 3:16, he learned much about other religions, and therefore believes God to be speaking through those religions and their texts. He seemed to be running pretty close to universalism. All in all, I enjoyed the read.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    Was actually tricked into reading this book, thinking it'd be some biographical work revolving Knuth's career with computers. But I was pleasantly surprised -- I rarely, if ever, read about religion, even less so a book that is a first-person account of it. Yet Knuth is level-minded, fair, and insightful. Although I thoroughly enjoyed his exposition of the intersection between CS and religion, I found his thoughts on religious interpretation, which is central the his related book 3:16 Bible Text Was actually tricked into reading this book, thinking it'd be some biographical work revolving Knuth's career with computers. But I was pleasantly surprised -- I rarely, if ever, read about religion, even less so a book that is a first-person account of it. Yet Knuth is level-minded, fair, and insightful. Although I thoroughly enjoyed his exposition of the intersection between CS and religion, I found his thoughts on religious interpretation, which is central the his related book 3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated, resonated with me the most. Whatever your background, it is most likely that you will finish this short little book with a more open mind -- not something that most religious books can claim to.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Dylan Groves

    famous computer scientist donald knuth talks about the relationship between his academic work and his lutheran faith. it doesn't answer the big questions, but it poses and takes stabs at lots of smaller interesting ones. three takeaways: 1 - a really good way to look deeply into something is to randomly sample parts of it and look very deeply at those parts, their origins, their operations and their purpose. 2 - great work - science, engineering, literature, theology - should always remain commit famous computer scientist donald knuth talks about the relationship between his academic work and his lutheran faith. it doesn't answer the big questions, but it poses and takes stabs at lots of smaller interesting ones. three takeaways: 1 - a really good way to look deeply into something is to randomly sample parts of it and look very deeply at those parts, their origins, their operations and their purpose. 2 - great work - science, engineering, literature, theology - should always remain committed to the pursuit of beauty. 3 - while the existence of God is probably being human capacity for understanding and proof, the committed search for answers to such big question is fundamental to creating meaning in life.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Josh Friedlander

    Mostly about Knuth's book 3:16 - Bible Texts Illuminated - which has pretty art and calligraphy about 66 Bible verses, like this plus some thoughts on faith, the size of finite numbers, prayer and finding a path in life. Mostly about Knuth's book 3:16 - Bible Texts Illuminated - which has pretty art and calligraphy about 66 Bible verses, like this plus some thoughts on faith, the size of finite numbers, prayer and finding a path in life.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Terrazas

    There are a handful of really interesting passages and he broaches some potentially powerful topics, but for the most part, it drags on. Lecture 6 is perhaps the highlight -- covering topics such as chance versus determinism, the futility and superfluousness of infinity, and free will. Other highlights include comparing liturgical translation to software rot (79) and how translation is very much anchored in the values of the translator.

  7. 5 out of 5

    James

    This was my second time reading this book. I like seeing Knuth's combination of faith and nerdiness. I really liked seeing the samples of the calligraphy in his other book, 3:16. Maybe someday I'll buy a copy.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Nick Black

    Amazon, 2008-10-03. Interesting set of lectures, largely about the random sampling of the Bible Knuth used to write 3:16. Amazon, 2008-10-03. Interesting set of lectures, largely about the random sampling of the Bible Knuth used to write 3:16.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Rey

    Too much religion... but there were some interesting thoughts throughout the book.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jeroen Vaelen

    Too much religion for me to really enjoy it but there were some very interesting points and thoughts throughout the book.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Lyla

    They're lectures by a man going outside of his field. It's fine, if you are a particular fan of Knuth, for example, but I wasn't particularly impressed with his project.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

    I picked this book up because of the title. I had no idea it would be about God, the Bible, translation, lettering/calligraphy, and even touch on the beginnings of Photoshop! All things I'm in to. I enjoyed some chapters (i.e. lectures—they're actually transcripts from lectures he gave and a panel discussion he was a part of), but others bored me. Much of the book/lecture series was about his writing the book 3:16 - Bible Texts Illuminated, which is focused on the 16th verse of the 3rd chapter of I picked this book up because of the title. I had no idea it would be about God, the Bible, translation, lettering/calligraphy, and even touch on the beginnings of Photoshop! All things I'm in to. I enjoyed some chapters (i.e. lectures—they're actually transcripts from lectures he gave and a panel discussion he was a part of), but others bored me. Much of the book/lecture series was about his writing the book 3:16 - Bible Texts Illuminated, which is focused on the 16th verse of the 3rd chapter of every book in the Bible (basically). That does not mean he necessarily clung to the Bible as the true and only Word of God, however. Here are some quotes from his Q&A times as examples. "I suspect that God has also inspired the canonical books of other religions." (p. 154) "I began… to see that God need not exclusively be identified with Christian dogma.… [M]any aspects of Christianity became more precious to me… although I no longer considered them to be the necessary and sufficient way to approach God." (p. 156) "I also have great respect for several other religions, and I believe God is speaking in their scriptures as well." (p. 191) In addition to those things, I seem to remember him claiming that basically every verse of the Bible has variations between the manuscripts available today and therefore the manuscripts aren't particularly reliable. I didn't mark the page, though, so maybe I merely misunderstood what he was saying (but he did seem to reinforce it multiple times throughout the lecture series). Either way, it's simply not true. While there certainly are some variations, overall the manuscripts are amazingly consistent and reliable.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Gohar Irfan

    More so than his personal beliefs about religion or Christianity, Donald discusses a framework (based on some concepts also important to Computer Science) to study religion. Going into the book, I was expecting more of a discussion around a top computer scientist's ideas of religion and how he came to those. However, that is not the fundamental theme of the book; it's something that is touched on more in depth in the final lecture. Donald talks to a great extent of the methodology he used, and t More so than his personal beliefs about religion or Christianity, Donald discusses a framework (based on some concepts also important to Computer Science) to study religion. Going into the book, I was expecting more of a discussion around a top computer scientist's ideas of religion and how he came to those. However, that is not the fundamental theme of the book; it's something that is touched on more in depth in the final lecture. Donald talks to a great extent of the methodology he used, and the importance of it in general, while studying the Bible when he wrote his book 3:16. This series of lectures gives an interesting perspective on things like the importance of randomness, aesthetics etc.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Rick Sam

    Donald Knuth, writes about his thoughts on God and Computer Science, but he goes into a lot of details about 3:16 book. Most of this book goes to talk about 3:16 book. He says theologians, bible translations are more difficult than Computer Science, and mathematicians because there's more work involved, and scholarly opinion on each text. I learnt about sampling method, and how he learnt a lot by selecting sample verses from each chapter of the Bible. Other than, that I don't think he said somet Donald Knuth, writes about his thoughts on God and Computer Science, but he goes into a lot of details about 3:16 book. Most of this book goes to talk about 3:16 book. He says theologians, bible translations are more difficult than Computer Science, and mathematicians because there's more work involved, and scholarly opinion on each text. I learnt about sampling method, and how he learnt a lot by selecting sample verses from each chapter of the Bible. Other than, that I don't think he said something new. He's humble about this topic. Deus Vult, Gottfried.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Thom Behrens

    Interesting insight into the spiritual life of a technical mind. Thought he could’ve gone deeper on some topics - this book is transcribed lectures, and you can tell that text was not the intended form for this content. Inspired me to get better acquainted with my bible.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

    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 und 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 immediate before and after the target verse to actually determine the meaning of the verse. He also found 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 travelled 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!

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ushan

    The famous computer scientist was raised a Lutheran, and as he was entering old age, he decided to learn the Bible better. Since the whole Bible is huge, he decided to take a sample of the Bible. The sample did not have to be random: it could be merely arbitrary; since John 3:16 is a famous verse, he decided to study verse 3:16 of every book in the Christian Bible. It was like pivoting on array element 316 in Quicksort: it does not guarantee that Quicksort doesn't become quadratic, but neither d The famous computer scientist was raised a Lutheran, and as he was entering old age, he decided to learn the Bible better. Since the whole Bible is huge, he decided to take a sample of the Bible. The sample did not have to be random: it could be merely arbitrary; since John 3:16 is a famous verse, he decided to study verse 3:16 of every book in the Christian Bible. It was like pivoting on array element 316 in Quicksort: it does not guarantee that Quicksort doesn't become quadratic, but neither does pivoting on a random element. In a few books, chapter 3 has fewer than 16 verses; Knuth continued on to chapter 4; a few books do not have chapter 3; Knuth omitted them. Since he did not know either Biblical Hebrew or Koine Greek, Knuth studied a large number of translations of the Bible into English, ancient and modern, and came up with his own translations of each verse. He then commissioned calligraphers to write out each verse, and bound their drawings together in a book. This study answers a question I once had: in Hebrew, leHem is bread, and in Arabic, laHm is meat; Lev 3:16 has the word leHem, but it refers to something being burned at an altar, which is obviously not bread.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    This really isn't a 5-star book in many senses. As transcripts of lectures (and very exact ones at that) it takes a little getting used to reading, at least one chapter was way to technical for me, and there were theological conclusions which I couldn't agree with. But I just had to give it five stars because this book tries to do what no book I've read has tried before: to bring together computer science, and its way of thinking, and applies that to God. Knuth's way of going about getting to kno This really isn't a 5-star book in many senses. As transcripts of lectures (and very exact ones at that) it takes a little getting used to reading, at least one chapter was way to technical for me, and there were theological conclusions which I couldn't agree with. But I just had to give it five stars because this book tries to do what no book I've read has tried before: to bring together computer science, and its way of thinking, and applies that to God. Knuth's way of going about getting to know God more really related to me. It was incredibly refreshing to hear the Bible approached in this way. Not that it's better than any other way, but I think it was a way that connects with how I like to relate: systematic, procedural, investigative, intellectual yet truly humble. A combination of computer science, Christianity, and typography: what more could you want.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Anne

    Knuth does not claim to have any particular qualification to write about Christianity, having had no formal training in theology, but I am VERY glad he went ahead with the project anyway. I found this to be an interesting, if eclectic, selection of ideas relating to faith that had some link to his work in computer science. I found it helpful in particular to learn tidbits about how computer scientists think. Especially interesting is his description of why he decided to use random sampling to st Knuth does not claim to have any particular qualification to write about Christianity, having had no formal training in theology, but I am VERY glad he went ahead with the project anyway. I found this to be an interesting, if eclectic, selection of ideas relating to faith that had some link to his work in computer science. I found it helpful in particular to learn tidbits about how computer scientists think. Especially interesting is his description of why he decided to use random sampling to study the bible, which culminated in the 3:16 project.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Robert

    Any time Donald Knuth writes something it is well worth reading...but this is a special gem. I was expecting something very different when I bought this book...but what I got was very valuable. This book is something that not only every Computer Scientist should read but everyone who deals with information, computers, graphics, and data should read. It won't directly lead you down specific paths...but you will get great insights into mankind, machines, and the nature of the soul. Very well worth Any time Donald Knuth writes something it is well worth reading...but this is a special gem. I was expecting something very different when I bought this book...but what I got was very valuable. This book is something that not only every Computer Scientist should read but everyone who deals with information, computers, graphics, and data should read. It won't directly lead you down specific paths...but you will get great insights into mankind, machines, and the nature of the soul. Very well worth reading.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Charles

    i have long-adored don knuth for his genius in computer programming and ability to teach others this knowledge. he is a deeply religious man, which is why i thought this book was pretty interesting, basically because faith and logic don't necessarily go hand-in-hand. i enjoyed his ideas in the book a lot, although the book is a transcription of lectures, which makes it a less enjoyable read than if it was originally written as a book.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Pito Salas

    Only the computer geeks out there will recognize this name, who is more or less the top computer scientist ever, who wrote some of the seminal books on the topic. It turns out that this book of all things is about biblical text interpretation and his insights from doing a lot of work. The beauty of this book is Knuth's writing and the way his mind works, which is a pleasure to behold.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Darklight

    Inspiring lectures that shed some light on computer science as a whole. The greatest aspect is that Knuth is on the one hand an aesthete, on the other hand a rigorous mathematician - combining it both in his religious believes. Also, the calligraphies are truly beautiful!

  24. 4 out of 5

    John

    The father of computer science discusses his faith and unique method of random sampling Bible verses in six lectures delivered at MIT. I found the final lecture and panel discussion among distinguished computer scientists the most interesting.

  25. 5 out of 5

    John

    An incredible discussion about mathematics and religion. Very glad I read it.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Conor

    He makes Maths and Computer Science, particularly unusual ideas and applications with in them very interesting.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Logan

    very interesting book about Knuth's faith (Lutheran) among other things.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Youngstrom

    My review from February 7, 2004 My review from February 7, 2004

  29. 5 out of 5

    Leandro Guimarães

    About God. And it is good, if a bit liberal.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Trent

    Read through the first lecture and skimmed the rest. While I respect Knuth's life and work, I don't think this collection of lectures merits a careful read through.

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