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HOME > PAST ISSUE > May-June 2005 > Article Detail


Rumours and Errours

Brian Hayes

The confessional essay is not a popular genre in mathematics and the sciences; few of us wish to dwell on our mistakes or call attention to them. An inspiring exception is Donald E. Knuth of Stanford University. During a decade's labor on the TeX typesetting system, he kept a meticulous log of all his errors, and then he published the list with a detailed commentary.

I have long admired Knuth's act of public bravery, and this column is my attempt to follow his example. I took courage from the thought that if there is any realm of life in which I might hope to surpass Don Knuth, it's in making mistakes; but, alas, I've fallen short even in this dubious department. Knuth's published error log runs to more than 900 entries, whereas here I am going to confess to only a paltry handful of mistakes. Then again, Knuth needed 10 years' work on a major software project to accumulate his budget of errors, but I was able to commit some really serious howlers in a program of a dozen lines.

Knuth remarks that keeping an error log not only helped in debugging the program but also "helped me to get to know myself." I would like to think that I too have acquired some self-knowledge from the experience of confronting my own fallibility. And it would be gratifying to suggest that by telling my story I might save others from making the same mistakes—but I don't quite believe that, and I'm not even sure it would be a good idea.

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