Computer. Science. Paradox?

Posted on December 8, 2010

I’ve always felt uneasy about the pairing of “computer” with “science”. There are two reasons. First, “science” is conventionally realized as the observation of nature; since computers are man made the rules we may derive from observation and analysis may not be applicable when we build a better or different computer. The second is that “computer science” in industry rarely seems to exhibit any of the distinguishing marks of “science”.

Perhaps you have had similar thoughts… but like so many things that flutter in and out of our heads on a daily basis never got around to digging deeper on the issue. I therefore thought I’d pass along some interesting research/discussion on the subject for your personal edification.

The first is The Cruelty of Really Teaching Computer Science (PDF) by E. W. Dijkstra written in 1988. The paper is hand-written and a joy to read. Its a bit long, but reads quickly. When reading it I found my self nodding a lot and feeling a joy that someone of such immense talent and honor has throughly given thought to these things.

The second is a piece in Wired from 2007 in which Bruce Sterling summarizes an ACM interview with Peter Denning: Computer Science. Is it Really a Science, and What’s It a Science About? in which the subject is address head on. Peter here discusses his project to produce a set of solid principles of computer science, to put these questions to bed. The results of that project are found on the site: The Great Principles of Computing project

These two resources should help you significantly along your way. There are many more, but these two stand out to me. And, because I think they are so interesting and important, I shall not do you the disservice of any further description here. 🙂

It does, hopefully, raise in your mind a question on you can answer about yourself: “Am I an engineer or a technician?”

As I pointed to in a recent post, an Engineer is “the discipline, art and profession of acquiring and applying scientific, mathematical, economic, social, and practical knowledge to design and build structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes that safely realize solutions to the needs of society.”

A technician is “a worker in a field of technology who is proficient in the relevant skills and techniques, with a relatively practical understanding of the theoretical principles.” So says Wikipedia. The entry continues with a useful example: “For example, although audio technicians are not as learned in acoustics as acoustical engineers, they are more proficient in operating sound equipment, and they will likely know more about acoustics than other studio personnel such as performers.”

Dijkstra argues that we do ourselves a disservice by preferring the term “bug” (which seems somehow passive and inevitable) instead of the more accurate “error” (which is active and direct). In the same way, I think we do ourselves a disservice by blurring the lines between “engineer” and “technician”.