Are the CS classics still relevant?

In Computer science on July 23, 2011 at 11:11 am

After years (decades) of waiting, with little teasers in the form of fascicles (a section of a book published separately), volume 4 (well, 4A) of Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming is finally available. This volume is about combinatorial algorithms. TAOCP is probably the definitive book on algorithms and the one that is most referenced in scholarly work. For many years computer scientists and programmers earned their stripes by using something from the first three volumes in programs they wrote. There was something about being able to say that the really cool routine you wrote to improve database access was derived from something you found in Knuth. Whenever a question about how efficient a program or routine was and whether there was a better way, you went to Knuth for the definitive answer.

So, to me, the release of the new volume is a really big thing—a really big nostalgic thing. I wonder how many of the current generation of software developers are excited, or even care about this release. There is no doubt that the number of people involved in computing has increased dramatically. Many of these people are programmers and not computer scientists or mathematicians. I don’t say this to belittle them. What they do is an honorable, important job. Decades ago, the state of computing was such that you really needed to be much more knowledgeable about math and the inner workings of computers than you do today if you wanted to write a program. Clearly, this is a good thing because the world’s appetite for software seems to be insatiable and we need to have as many people as possible preparing the dishes for the ravenous beast.

How many of this generation of software developers are able to, or even care to mine the depths of the works of people like Knuth to find the gems there that are hidden from mere mortals? I have the utmost respect for many of today’s technology heroes, but to paraphrase Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, “I knew Knuth, and these are not Knuth.”

Perhaps there is too much for any one person to know about computing today. That’s been true for decades, but Donald Knuth knows as much about the core concepts than anyone I can think of. I hope that we will see a renewal of interest in Knuth’s works with the publication of volume 4A of TAOCP and that it will inspire students as it did me and many of my friends.

What other people and classics are we missing today? I’d like to compile a list of those which inspired people and stand head and shoulders above others in their field.


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