September 21, 2008

Computer science does not study the digital computer

A great post by Eugene Wallingford at Knowing and Doing on a topic that has long interested me: What is computer science and is it a science?

Computer science does not study the digital computer. Dijkstra told us so a long time ago, and if we didn't believe him then, we should now, with the advent of ideas such as quantum computing and biological computing.

Computer science is about processes that transform information. I see many naturally-occurring processes in the world. It appears now that life is the result of an information process, implement in the form of DNA. Chemical processes involve information as well as matter. And some physicists now believe that the universe as we experience it is a projection of two-dimensional information embodied in the interaction of matter and energy.


I believe everything I've said here today, but that doesn't mean that I believe that CS is only science. Much of what we do in CS is engineering: of hardware systems, of software systems, of larger systems in which the manipulation of information is but one component. Much of what we do is mathematics: finding patterns, constructing abstractions, and following the implications of our constructions within a formal system. That doesn't mean computer science is not also science. Some people think we use the scientific method only as a tool to study engineered artifacts, but I think that they are missing the big picture of what CS is.

BTW, if you haven't already, feel free to take a look at the interview I did with Eugene a few months ago.

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