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What computer science is

Page history last edited by Justin Spratt 12 years, 10 months ago


One of the lesser-known facts about my life is that I didn't know exactly what I was getting myself into when I accepted Simon Fraser University's offer to study in their School of Computing Science.  Be that as it may, I now have a fairly solid understanding of what computer science (also known as computing science (in the USA), comp-sci, and often abbreviated CS) is and what it is not, and this understanding has led me to discover that almost no one else (through no fault of their own) knows what computer science really is.  Since I have tried, and often done only a mediocre job, to explain the origins of the misunderstanding, what CS is often mistaken for, and what CS actually is, I finally decided to attempt a coherent document that avoids the pitfalls of my previous attempts while also saving me from having to feel that I must endlessly reiterate myself.


I hope that this doesn't come across as impersonal--indeed, I am writing this myself rather than sending you to the Wikipedia article (or someone else's article of the same nature) precisely in order to be personal.  On one hand, it is true that a cumulative effect led to this article, but on the other hand, this is actually an extension of one particular letter to one particular person (and everyone else is, in a way, reading my mail).  In fact, I fell a strong connection to computer science in a deeply personal sense: there are philosophical and moral aspects to CS that I have taken strong positions on;  since I have an effect (however small) on the developments in CS, and since these technological developments impact many people on levels reaching from simple computations to facilitating interpersonal communication (the end goal of most of my efforts in the field, if not, in the final analysis, the end goal of the field itself), computer science has become a part of me.


My very first lecture of my very first class in computing science (CMPT-120 at SFU in the Fall semester of 2007) had roughly the same intent as this document.  Greg Baker, then my professor, defined computing science as the study of algorithms and then defined what he meant by an algorithm for the next 49 minutes.  I still like his short concise definition, and I often use it.  Sometimes I go so far as to describe my area of study as "algorithmic mathematics" (or even "applied mathematics") rather than computer science, but these still miss the mark.  My estimate is that more than half of the people in that class had the wrong idea of what comp-sci was prior to his lecture (and I'm sure a good number graduated without ever really admitting that they intended to study something else).


The Misnomer

Names of sciences can often be broken down to discover their meaning.  (Biology is the study of biological organisms.)  Following the pattern, wouldn't computer science be the study of computers?  No, it has almost nothing to do with the actual computers; a little knowledge of the history of computer science shows this to be impossible: the Babylonians used aspects of computer science as early as 1900 BC in Babylonian algebra, and Euclid discovered the Euclidean algorithm ca. 300 BC.  Until recently, people were computers.


When I stop and ask myself what I would have called computer science instead, I discover the problem:

  • if I call it computing science (which I generally prefer to computer science, those who practice it become computing scientists (which sounds like scientists who sit around computing things, which is, I guess, what mathematicians would have to do if there weren't any computer scientists)
  • if I call it algorithmology, everyone gets confused and it is a bit too tight of a definition (and its quite a mouthful)


So, it's back to 'computer science,' which still sounds like I study computers.


  • Computer Science
  • Software Engineering
  • Computer Engineering
  • System Administration






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