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

February 1, 2016 at 8:03 am 8 comments

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?

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bonnie  |  February 1, 2016 at 8:13 am

    So how do you define the field of Information Technology then? Is it the same as Computer Science or different?

  • 2. David Klappholz  |  February 1, 2016 at 11:43 am

    I disagree with many of the arguments made by the CMU CS pioneers about whether CS is a natural science, but the major point, IMNVHO, is that we’re educating virtually all of our undergrads to be software developers, not computer scientists — or, at least, that’s why most of them are paying the big bucks to get the BS in CS. (A “computer scientist” is a person who has a PhD in the field, and does research in the field. When the 95+% of all CS grads get their first jobs, their titles are “software developer” or “software engineer” — even though the degree is in CS, not SwE.)

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  February 1, 2016 at 12:01 pm

      If we are going to teach CS to everyone (as POTUS said yesterday), the goal can’t be to produce a nation of professional software engineers. While undergrads earning a BS in CS may be predominantly preparing themselves for a career in software development, that may not be true in the future, and it’s certainly won’t be the case (and may no longer even be true today) that the majority of students in our classes aim to become professional software developers.

  • 4. chaikens  |  February 2, 2016 at 8:06 am

    Simon must have noted somewhere that what brains do is an example of natural computing phenomena.

  • 5. Bill Robinson  |  February 5, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    “In enabling mechanism to combine together general symbols, in successions of unlimited variety and extent, a uniting link is established between the operations of matter and the abstract mental processes of the most abstract branch of mathematical science…. Very valuable practical results would be developed by the extended powers of the Analytical Engine, some of which would be brought forth by the daily increasing requirements of science and by a more intimate practical acquaintance with the powers of the engine, were it in actual existence” (Ada Lovelace, 1843)

    Your blog doesn’t seem to enable textual emphasis, so I’d just say that the phrase “Very valuable practical results would be developed by… a more intimate practical acquaintance with the powers of the engine” clearly advocates for computational thinking, even though the ‘engine’ did not even exist when those words were written. A conception of computer science therefore clearly and irrefutably pre-dated the physical existence of the computer.

    Perhaps only within one woman’s brain at that point in history, but now we are all advocating playing catch-up, getting on for the best part of 200 years later.

  • […] Randy told the story of how CMU’s School of Computer Science was driven by the original definition of computer science from Newell and Simon, and how that definition was broader than most people’s definition of CS today. I recently blogged on that definition. […]

  • […] I have bold-faced my favorite sentence in the quote below. I like how this emphasis reflects the original definition of computer science: “Computer science is the study of computers and all the phenomena surrounding […]

  • 8. Episode 01: Computer Science – Computers for home  |  September 2, 2019 at 12:58 pm

    […] Computer Science is the Study of Computers and all the phenomena surrounding them by Mark Guzdial Computer science is the study of computers and all the phenomena surrounding them […]


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