Stanford Today Edition: September/October, 1996 Section: Science and Medicine News: Kyoto Award WWW: Donald Knuth Wins Kyoto Prize

Donald E. Knuth, one of the founding fathers of computer science, has been awarded the 1996 Kyoto Prize, Japan’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize and the country’s highest private award for lifetime achievement. Knuth, professor emeritus of computer science, will receive approximately $460,000, along with a certificate and a gold medal, Kazuo Inamori, founder and president of the Inamori Foundation, announced in June.

“This is just a dream and I’ll have to wake up to see who really won the prize,” Knuth said. He added that he and his wife have decided to donate the money to charity.

The Kyoto Prize is awarded each year in three categories: advanced technology, basic sciences and creative arts. Knuth won in advanced technology.

He is best known as a pioneering mathematician whose research has been of primary importance in the analysis of computer algorithms - procedures by which computations are carried out. He is also a leading investigator of programming languages, and his work has been instrumental in establishing the field as a scholarly discipline.

Among his most widely acclaimed works is the series The Art of Computer Programming. When he started writing it in 1962, he expected to finish by the time his first child was born. That son, John, is now a Stanford graduate, and Knuth has completed three volumes. Although his colleagues have characterized his work as “the bible and encyclopedia for computer science,” Knuth says it is not finished. In fact, he took early retirement in 1993, when he was only 55, to devote full time to this task. He estimates that he will add about 250 pages per year, starting next year, for 15 to 20 years before he is finished.

Part of the reason the project has turned into a life’s work is the rate at which the field of computer science is developing, he said. “In the 1960s I could be exhaustive. Now I have to be content with boiling down the most important developments into the clearest, most concise language possible.”

But another reason is Knuth’s passion for perfection. When he saw the galleys for the second volume of Programming from the printer, he was horrified at how ugly they looked. “My first edition had been typeset by hand and was very beautiful, but the second edition had been typeset by computers. Knowing a computer was the culprit made me even more upset,” he said.

So Knuth applied his knowledge of mathematics and programming to the art of typeface design and typesetting. He developed a document preparation system called TEX and a font design system called METAFONT that first gave computers the ability to control text layouts typographically and print with typeset quality. These programs have been called the single most important achievement in publishing since the invention of the printing press. Rather than copyrighting and licensing the programs, Knuth put them in the public domain.

Since his retirement, Knuth has given seven to eight lectures annually under the title of “Computer Musings.” He said he intends to continue this practice as a way to contribute to the department.

Knuth is the third computer scientist to win the Kyoto Prize since its inception in 1985. John McCarthy, professor of computer science at Stanford and the creator of the language used in artificial intelligence research, won in 1988. Maurice Wilkes of Cambridge University won in 1992.

Stanford Dean of Engineering John Hennessy said that the prize is “the closest thing we have to a Nobel Prize in computer science.” ST