Saturday, June 27, 2009

D. E. Knuth and his phd

I am always amazed by the story of how D. E. Knuth got his phd. Knowing many friends who have done or are trying to do a doctoral degree completed, it is just amazing how he did it. Here is the ACM interview where he talks about it.

I got a listing from a guy at Princeton who had just computed 32 solutions to a problem that I had been looking at for a homework problem in my combinatorics class. I was riding up on the elevator with Olga Todd, one of our professors, and I said, "Mrs. Todd, I think I'm going to have a theorem in an hour. I am going to psyche out the rule that explains why there happen to be 32 of each kind." Sure enough, an hour later I had seen how to get from each solution on the first page to the solution on the second page. I showed this to Marshall Hall. He said, "Don, that's your thesis. Don't worry about this block design with squ.gif=2 business. Write this up instead and get out of here." So that became my thesis. And it is a good thing, because since then only one more design with squ.gif=2 has been discovered in the history of the world. I might still be working on my thesis if I had stuck to that problem. But I felt a little guilty that I had solved my Ph.D. problem in one hour, so I dressed it up with a few other chapters of stuff.

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