CS-101: Defining Computer Science


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Let’s Just Dive In

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If I overthink it, I’ll end up asking rhetorical questions.  You know: What is Computer Science?  What is the meaning of life?  How long is infinity?  And so forth.  While I ask to pardon the unorthodox approach, consider the first time the mathematical concept of infinity was explained to you.  As for myself, I marveled at it and spend time pondering on the length of this “infinity” thing.

It wasn’t until I was about twenty (or so) I started wondering how large – how big – infinity is.  A simple example is the space between 1.0 and 2.0: it is… infinite starting at 1.1, 1.2, … 1.11, 1.12 … and on, and on, and on.  It is this type of approach I would like to take with defining Computer Science under the context with which I am writing.  This is due to three major reasons:

  • It makes any definition of Computer Science [here] tangible and understandable
  • It allows us to place limits on the breadth, width, and scope of how we can look at Computer Science under these circumstances
  • Like infinity, the text book definition is small, but over such small words mean nothing in the shadow of its application

If we look to Merriam-Webster, “computer science” is defined as follows:

noun: a branch of science that deals with the theory of computation or the design of computers

As we read the definition, left to right, we get to the core of what Computer Science is: handling theories of computation.  For the sake of this entry, we will just stick to basic math, algebra, and so forth… number crunching with both precision and accuracy.

Moving along, we should take pause as we find a conjunction – “or” – which essentially means that there are now two definitions for Computer Science.  In the convenience of modernity, this is a good thing for the original computer was known by another name: humans.

Our own history has defined both sides of Merriam-Webster‘s definition.  The human computer observed the tides, the stars, the seasons, and much more.  The human computer also derived both tools and methods to make the process of human calculations both as quick as possible and in units others could understand.

On the verge of being philosophical, we created the right-hand side of the definition via non-human tools for calculation.  While we will discuss compute modules in more detail during our next lesson, rest assured that as civilizations have become more sophisticated so have the computers humans became reliant upon.

So… Computer Science for Our Purposes?

To make things completely clear, we are working with the dual defined nature of Computer Science.  Specifically, we are discussing the duality of humans being computers whilst building tools to make computational processing easier: allowing for what was one hard to become easy as so the next set of information to process could be tackled.

Each tool the human computer designed – from Abacus to Zilog processors – are essentially varied versions of what we have the ability to simply call “computers”.  So, the way we will define Computer Science (with boundaries) is to address computational theories, the problems humans worked to tackle, and how innovation led to the offloading of our human computer’s “mental work” to using a primitive or complex “machined computer” to do the same task.

So, yes – you are a computer.  You aren’t as fast as an Apple ][+ when it comes to mathematical computations, but even its creators are in the same position we are.  However, it is the problems they saw, faced, and overcame that we will be diving into the science of as remember this:

The Apple ][+ was an improvement of the Apple and the Apple was based upon existing technology, means to computational ends, and so forth.

Until Next Week…

Don’t fry your mind.  We will be diving back into the history of us as “human computers” and how thousands of years worth of individual/collective work still remains relevant to Computer Science today.

Until next week, shoot any questions or topics you’d like to see covered!

– JK Benedict | @xenfomation