Archive for February 1, 2016

Computer science is the study of computers and all the phenomena surrounding them

One of the common questions in CS education is, “What is computer science?”  I recently looked into the original article in Science that introduced the term in 1967 from Allen Newell, Alan Perlis, and Herbert Simon.  They define computer science as the study of computers and the phenomena surrounding them.

I do see the point that what computer scientists are really interested in is computing, which is separate from computers themselves.  That’s a distinction that is mostly lost on students, though, and is not all that important to emphsize now that computers exist.  We can argue that computer science existed before computers, but that’s a thought experiment.  What we study today is based on the reality that the devices exist.

CMU keeps a library of correspondence from Herb Simon and I found this letter (see link here) interesting because it shows Simon making a similar distinction.  Computers had to exist before computer scientists before we could really define a field:  “A point of our letters was that, whether genuine substance now exists in computer science or not, computers constitute such a rich set of phenomena that it obviously will exist. (In a sense, there had to be plants, then botanists, before there could be botany.)”

There are computers. Ergo, computer science is the study of computers. The phenomena surrounding computers are varied, complex, rich. It remains only to answer the objections posed by many skeptics.

Objection 4. Computers, like thermometers, are instruments, not phenomena. Instruments lead away to their user sciences; the behaviors of instruments are subsumed as special topics in other sciences (not always the user sciences – electron microscopy belongs to physics, not biology). Answer. The computer is such a novel and complex instrument that its behavior is subsumed under no other science; its study does not lead away to user sciences, but to further study of computers. Hence, the computer is not just an instrument but a phenomenon as well, requiring description and explanation.

from What is Computer Science?

February 1, 2016 at 8:03 am 8 comments


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