[Humanist] 28.594 The Tears of Donald Knuth

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Dec 27 10:17:32 CET 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 594.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 25 Dec 2014 19:02:13 +0000
        From: Alexander O'Connor <alex.oconnor at scss.tcd.ie>
        Subject: The Tears of Donald Knuth

[The following refers to "The Tears of Donald Knuth" by Thomas Haigh, which appeared in Communications of the ACM, Vol. 58 No. 1, Pages 40-44. --WM]

The question of whether a non-technical scholar can judge effectively the history of a discipline is one well-discussed on this forum. Nonetheless I thought this article was worth bringing the attention of the list to:


Some select passages that caught my eye:

* In his lecture Knuth worried that a "dismal trend" in historical work meant that "all we get nowadays is dumbed down" through the elimination of technical detail. According to Knuth "historians of math have always faced the fact that they won't be able to please everybody." He feels that other historians of science have succumbed to "the delusion that ... an ordinary person can understand physics ..."

* Current enthusiasm for the "digital humanities" and the inescapable importance of computing to the modern world could provide opportunities. One day humanities search committees might even seek out historians of computing, but only those whose work engages with and appeals to scholars who themselves know nothing of computer science. In the meantime many scholars with doctorates in the history of computing have found work in museums or in academic employment outside both history and computer science, for example, in business schools, information schools, or specialist programs such as engineering education. These positions pose their own disciplinary challenges, but for obvious reasons provide few incentives to study the history of computer science.

* To summarize, the upper-right quadrant in the accompanying table is essentially empty. It reflects historical work forming the backbone of a scholarly career and intended as a contribution to computer science. I share Knuth's regret that the technical history of computer science is greatly understudied. The main cause is that computer scientists have lost interest in preserving the intellectual heritage of their own discipline. 
Dr. Alexander O'Connor
Knowledge & Data Engineering Group
School of Computer Science & Statistics
Trinity College, University of Dublin 
Dublin 2, Ireland
Alex.OConnor at scss.tcd.ie

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