hi. i'm corey.

What is Computer Science?

posted by

Corey Watts

on August 28, 2012

This is a short essay I wrote during my senior year at Westmont for my capstone class. Enjoy:

In my time here at Westmont, I’ve encountered many people who were unaware of exactly what Computer Science encompasses or who had completely wrong assumptions about its nature or proponents. I’ve met multiple people who, upon hearing that I am a Computer Scientist, have asked me if I enjoy theoretical mathematics. Some assume that Computer Science is simply arcane research done alone in a cold air-conditioned laboratory. In reality, while Computer Science may encompass both of these extremes, it is much more than theoretical math and arcane science. This term is rather like an antiquated umbrella with large holes in its fabric: while it theoretically encompasses many different areas, it does not fully cover everything beneath it. Computer Science is much more than science itself – it encompasses art, creativity, empathy, self-expression, and an understanding of the human mind.

To begin with, the term “Computer Science” is a bit of a misnomer: this field is much more than science. As Paul Graham says in his essay “Hackers and Painters”, Computer Science encompasses everyone from mathematicians, to biologists, to historians, to artists, to activists. Graham explains that some Computer Scientists really do spend all of their time in the field of information theory and theoretical mathematics, whereas others simply use the computer as a means of creative self-expression.

The funny thing is, Computer Science can be done without computers. The term is a misnomer indeed. Interestingly, I can “run” any algorithm using a pencil and a piece of paper. I don’t even need a calculator. Certainly, using a calculator would speed up the process. But isn’t that what a computer is? A computer is essentially a very fast calculator. While it is not absolutely necessary, the use of a computer speeds up the problem-solving by a significant factor. Instead of taking 100 years to work out a problem by hand, a computer could do it in a fraction of a minute. While computers are certainly an important part of Computer Science, they are not the entire field. As Philip Guo states when he quotes Edsger Dijkstra, “Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about computers.” This is more true than most laypeople realize. If Computer Science is not always science and does not necessarily involve computers, the term itself is certainly misleading!

Computer Science is often focused on solving real-world problems using the tools of abstraction and pattern-finding. Abstraction is an important part of Computer Science, as Philip Guo states. We solve problems through abstraction. A programmer will model some aspect of the real world, but in a simpler and more abstract way that still accurately behaves as the problem calls for. Because it is impossible (presently) to model the complete human mind, a Computer Scientist will abstract the mind into a clear and simple model that only has the functions he needs.

Programming is often associated with Computer Science. Indeed, most Computer Scientists program. But programming is more than most people think. While programming may be seen simply as an sharp steel implement that is used to solve a problem, it is also a very valid art-form. Programming is an expression of how a person thinks. It can be truly beautiful, as in a clever and clearly-written solution. It can also be ugly and impossible to understand, as in the code written by a lazy and overtired person who hates his job. Graham draws a connection between programming and painting. I think it is a very valid connection: both hackers and painters express themselves through their work, carefully constructing each brush stroke or line of code so that it accomplishes the creator’s overall purpose. If enough care and sweat are put into a program, not only will it have a beautiful outward appearance, but its source code will be beautiful, readable, and understandable as well. The level of creative skill can clearly be seen in a well-written program as in a well-done painting. When properly studied, the term “Computer Science” is a misnomer that describes a wide variety of people and activities. It encompasses everything from math to science to art, and everything in between.

Works Cited:

Guo, Philip. “What is Computer Science?”. http://www.stanford.edu/~pgbovine/what-is-computer-science.htm. Accessed January 11th, 2011.

Graham, Philip. “Hackers and Painters”. http://www.paulgraham.com/hp.html. Accessed January 11th, 2011.