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Preface to The Art of Computer Programming, Volume 3: Sorting and Searching, 2nd Edition

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To mark the release of the official multi-format ebook of Donald Knuth's Art of Computer Programming, Volume 3: Sorting and Searching, 2nd Edition, we are pleased to make available the preface.

Find all of Donald Knuth's books, excerpts, and interviews listed on his author page.


Cookery is become an art,
a noble science;
cooks are gentlemen.
— TITUS LIVIUS, Ab Urbe Condita XXXIX.vi
(Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy 1.2.2.2)

This book forms a natural sequel to the material on information structures in Chapter 2 of Volume 1, because it adds the concept of linearly ordered data to the other basic structural ideas.

The title “Sorting and Searching” may sound as if this book is only for those systems programmers who are concerned with the preparation of general-purpose sorting routines or applications to information retrieval. But in fact the area of sorting and searching provides an ideal framework for discussing a wide variety of important general issues:

  • How are good algorithms discovered?
  • How can given algorithms and programs be improved?
  • How can the efficiency of algorithms be analyzed mathematically?
  • How can a person choose rationally between different algorithms for the same task?
  • In what senses can algorithms be proved “best possible”?
  • How does the theory of computing interact with practical considerations?
  • How can external memories like tapes, drums, or disks be used efficiently with large databases?

Indeed, I believe that virtually every important aspect of programming arises somewhere in the context of sorting or searching!

This volume comprises Chapters 5 and 6 of the complete series. Chapter 5 is concerned with sorting into order; this is a large subject that has been divided chiefly into two parts, internal sorting and external sorting. There also are supplementary sections, which develop auxiliary theories about permutations (Section 5.1) and about optimum techniques for sorting (Section 5.3). Chapter 6 deals with the problem of searching for specified items in tables or files; this is subdivided into methods that search sequentially, or by comparison of keys, or by digital properties, or by hashing, and then the more difficult problem of secondary key retrieval is considered. There is a surprising amount of interplay between both chapters, with strong analogies tying the topics together. Two important varieties of information structures are also discussed, in addition to those considered in Chapter 2, namely priority queues (Section 5.2.3) and linear lists represented as balanced trees (Section 6.2.3).

Like Volumes 1 and 2, this book includes a lot of material that does not appear in other publications. Many people have kindly written to me about their ideas, or spoken to me about them, and I hope that I have not distorted the material too badly when I have presented it in my own words.

I have not had time to search the patent literature systematically; indeed, I decry the current tendency to seek patents on algorithms (see Section 5.4.5). If somebody sends me a copy of a relevant patent not presently cited in this book, I will dutifully refer to it in future editions. However, I want to encourage people to continue the centuries-old mathematical tradition of putting newly discovered algorithms into the public domain. There are better ways to earn a living than to prevent other people from making use of one’s contributions to computer science.

Before I retired from teaching, I used this book as a text for a student’s second course in data structures, at the junior-to-graduate level, omitting most of the mathematical material. I also used the mathematical portions of this book as the basis for graduate-level courses in the analysis of algorithms, emphasizing especially Sections 5.1, 5.2.2, 6.3, and 6.4. A graduate-level course on concrete computational complexity could also be based on Sections 5.3, and 5.4.4, together with Sections 4.3.3, 4.6.3, and 4.6.4 of Volume 2.

For the most part this book is self-contained, except for occasional discussions relating to the MIX computer explained in Volume 1. Appendix B contains a summary of the mathematical notations used, some of which are a little different from those found in traditional mathematics books.

Preface to the Second Edition

This new edition matches the third editions of Volumes 1 and 2, in which I have been able to celebrate the completion of TEX and METAFONT by applying those systems to the publications they were designed for.

The conversion to electronic format has given me the opportunity to go over every word of the text and every punctuation mark. I’ve tried to retain the youthful exuberance of my original sentences while perhaps adding some more mature judgment. Dozens of new exercises have been added; dozens of old exercises have been given new and improved answers. Changes appear everywhere, but most significantly in Sections 5.1.4 (about permutations and tableaux), 5.3 (about optimum sorting), 5.4.9 (about disk sorting), 6.2.2 (about entropy), 6.4 (about universal hashing), and 6.5 (about multidimensional trees and tries).

fm01.jpg The Art of Computer Programming is, however, still a work in progress. Research on sorting and searching continues to grow at a phenomenal rate. Therefore some parts of this book are headed by an “under construction” icon, to apologize for the fact that the material is not up-to-date. For example, if I were teaching an undergraduate class on data structures today, I would surely discuss randomized structures such as treaps at some length; but at present, I am only able to cite the principal papers on the subject, and to announce plans for a future Section 6.2.5 (see page 478). My files are bursting with important material that I plan to include in the final, glorious, third edition of Volume 3, perhaps 17 years from now. But I must finish Volumes 4 and 5 first, and I do not want to delay their publication any more than absolutely necessary.

I am enormously grateful to the many hundreds of people who have helped me to gather and refine this material during the past 35 years. Most of the hard work of preparing the new edition was accomplished by Phyllis Winkler (who put the text of the first edition into TeX form), by Silvio Levy (who edited it extensively and helped to prepare several dozen illustrations), and by Jeffrey Oldham (who converted more than 250 of the original illustrations to METAPOST format). The production staff at Addison–Wesley has also been extremely helpful, as usual.

I have corrected every error that alert readers detected in the first edition — as well as some mistakes that, alas, nobody noticed — and I have tried to avoid introducing new errors in the new material. However, I suppose some defects still remain, and I want to fix them as soon as possible. Therefore I will cheerfully award $2.56 to the first finder of each technical, typographical, or historical error. The webpage cited on page iv contains a current listing of all corrections that have been reported to me.

D. E. K.
Stanford, California
February 1998

There are certain common Privileges of a Writer,
the Benefit whereof, I hope, there will be no Reason to doubt;
Particularly, that where I am not understood, it shall be concluded,
that something very useful and profound is coucht underneath.
— JONATHAN SWIFT, Tale of a Tub, Preface (1704)

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