What would Donald Knuth do?

I’ve seen exhortations to think like Leonardo da Vinci or Albert Einstein, but these leave me cold. I can’t imagine thinking like either of these men. But here are a few famous people I could imagine emulating when trying to solve a problem

What would Donald Knuth do? Do a depth-first search on all technologies that might be relevant, and write a series of large, beautiful, well-written books about it all.

What would Alexander Grothendieck do? Develop a new field of mathematics that solves the problem as a trivial special case.

What would Richard Stallman do? Create a text editor so powerful that, although it doesn’t solve your problem, it does allow you to solve your problem by writing a macro and a few lines of Lisp.

What would Larry Wall do? Bang randomly on the keyboard and save the results to a file. Then write a language in which the file is a program that solves your problem.

What would you add to the list?


25 thoughts on “What would Donald Knuth do?

  1. Linus Thorvalds: Start it as a project, outsource the solution to thousands of volunteers all over the world.

    Dennis Richie: quietly remind you he already solved it in the 1970:s, using a cast-off punchcard based machine in the basement.

    David Marr: Declare the problem trivial, assign it as a grad student summer project.

  2. Guido van Rissum:
    Define one– and preferably only one –obvious way to write the problem very simple and beautiful, so anyone could understand it.

  3. Brendan Eich: Toss together a quick solution and watch stunned as everyone else tries to use it as the foundation to solve their problems

  4. What Donald Knuth would do first is probably groan about reading “Dondald Knuth” in the title…

  5. What would Gauss do? He’d had solved the problem ages ago, only to disclose his work when a clever younger scientist came to him expecting support for his brand new solution

  6. John D. Cook: Make a blog post out of it with some examples of solutions and ask his readers if they have found others.

  7. EVPOK: Make a cheerful reply to a blog post serendipitously encountered while letting the problem “background process” in his mind, and return to the problem refreshed.

  8. Mark Zukerberg: Acquire all the startups and use it in Facebook.

    Steve Jobs: Steal the idea, Make it fancy and Sell it

  9. Hunter S. Thompson: Rent red convertible and go on drugs and booze fueled rampage and trash several conferences, which ultimately achieves or solves nothing, but leads to great book about nature of Computer Science as a field.

  10. Fermat, a secluded French judge: Write a theorem, hide the 2 lines solution and provide a challenge to every known mathematicians for hundreds of years.

  11. Thanks for the comments above.

    By the way, my quip about Larry Wall is not original. There’s an old joke to the effect that Perl was designed to make line noise compile. And it’s just good-natured fun. I actually don’t mind Perl’s syntax. For what Perl is, the syntax makes sense.

  12. Linus Torvalds: hack up a solution overnight, then release it as open source. Wait until thousands of people round the world start working on it, then start swearing at them.

  13. Bjarne Stroustrup: Don’t solve the problem, but come up with at least 5 different possible solution which all have their own nasty drawbacks. You could write a template around your problem, though and believe the world would care.

  14. Fred Brooks: Write a book analyzing every little detail of how you went about solving your problem. Let designing things become a scientific process and don’t forget that the final product has to ferry itself over the atlantic.

  15. What would Fermat do ?

    Scribble some novel shorthand at the corner of some book and leave it to the toil of mathematicians and scientists for the next 350 years

    Also on a similar note,

    What would Riemann do ?

    Invent a mathematical function which has queer properties and relate it to a novel problem of the ages and leave it for the next 10 odd generations to figure it out (if at all it can be solved).

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