Saturday, February 17, 2007

MARTIN DAVID MEMORIAL (Part II- by Clyde Kruskal)

Guest Posting for Guest Blogger Bill Gasarch,
Guest Poster Clyde Kruskal.

At my fathers memorial service, here is how
I ended my remarks.

I want to share a story that is
about my kids, my Dad, and Donald Knuth.
As you will see, it all ties together.

The way Dad learned about surreal numbers, which
became his passion, is by
reading a book by Donald Knuth, written
in the form of a dialog.  Donald Knuth is in many
ways the father of computer science.  In the 1960's
he wrote a three volume set laying out the foundations
of computer science.
The world has been patiently waiting since 1973 for
Volume 4, which is just now coming out.

Anyway, you know how Dad was when he read something.
He had to make sure every technical detail was correct,
and he never missed a typo.  After finishing the book
he sent Knuth a long list of corrections,
and was surprised to get a check back in the mail.
It turns out Knuth pays money to the first person
who finds each error in his books.

If I am allowed to interupt myself, I sent this story
to Knuth.  He wrote back that he

``... found a copy of the letter I wrote to your dad in
August, 1975.  It closed with `...your reward check is
enclosed. It's the first time I've ever paid out for
{\sl Surreal Numbers\/}; in this kind of book
[written as a dialog], I can usually claim that errors
were intentional.' ''

Well, two summers ago my colleague Bill Gasarch decided
to review a math book, which happened to be written in the
form of a dialog.  So, one afternoon, he gathered
[my triplets] Alexander, Justin, and Rebecca together,
taught them the material, and wrote down their comments
as a dialog.  Of course, anything that had to do with
both math and the kids I emailed to dad, because he
would appreciate it.  Sure enough, back came a full
page of unsolicited corrections and improvements.
Bill was amazed.  After making the edits, the review
was sent out with Bill and the three kids as authors.
It appeared in the fall.

Last month I was in Bill's office and he says.
``Look.  I just got email from Donald Knuth.''
Here's what he says about the review.
Then it goes on to ask if he has received Volume 4 yet
to review
``possibly with the help of Alexander, Justin, and Rebecca.''

I thought to myself.  ``Wow!  I can't wait to tell Dad.''

But I couldn't.
So, I hope you heard this.
We miss you.


  1. we miss him too....he was surely a giant in Mathematics community although my breadth of knowledge cannot justify my claim.....

  2. what a wonderful story. Made me sad and happy all at once.

  3. Thanks a lot for posting this lovely story. Reading it made my day.

    Is the book review available on the web? The post made me want to read it, and I guess that several other people will want to look at it too.

  4. The book review is at

    its column 37-3

    bill gasarch

  5. Beautiful...!

    Made me remember something! The first book I ever saw by Don Knuth, at a time where I was halfway through a math degree, and no computer scientist at all, it was Surreal Numbers...

    And, sorry that I knew hardly anything about the Kruskal family. In such sad opportunities, around here we use to say "Les acompaño en el sentimiento." My best wishes.