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Defining Computer Science

2007-01-24

Category: philosophies

Many people have a skewed perception of Computer Science (CS). When asked to define CS they may say, ?That?s where you learn to use computers.? Though it is true that computer use is part of the discipline, that does not really define the science as a while.

Computers are to CS what hammers are to carpentry. They are tools, just tools. Though they may be very important tools, there is more to the science than just that. A carpenter must understand an assortment of hammers, but must also understand chisels, saws, and rasps. More importantly, carpenters must understand wood.

So it is that computer scientists must not only understand an assortment of computers, but all of the related tools. Just as the carpenter must understand how to apply tools to wood, the computer scientist must understand how to apply tools to data and information.

You see, Computer Science is the study of methods to store, process, and analyze data or information. That?s all data and all information. The computer is a handy tool to help with this work, but it is not the work itself. The science aspect is far more important.

Like all sciences, CS has a moral mandate to strive for the betterment of humanity. Whether the field is medicine, education, or commerce, computer science has made it better. If you are prescribed a new medicine, it is the computer that will warn that there may be a drug interaction. That is better because of CS.

Computer scientists are the people who create new ways to analyze data (small facts) and find information (useful patterns of data). It goes a step further than that; we look at data and information about data and information. Sometimes we have to pull back to the abstract and find new ways to store, process, and analyze. We find those new ways and make things perceptibly better for some part of the world.

Like most sciences, there are bad guys out there too. They want to misuse the knowledge of the science for gain at the expense of others. There is a constant battle going on between the good guys and the bad guys, ?white hats? and ?black hats? respectively, after old western movies. The white hats want to keep your data safe. The black hats want to steal or damage your data. Both sides spend massive amounts of time and money to do research and experiment to get the upper hand.

It can be difficult to see CS in action. When you see the chemist modeling some new molecule, you don?t think about the CS that made the programs possible. When you get money from the automatic teller there is no thought about the decades of slow growth in the world of financial computing. The digital tuning on your car?s sound system doesn?t bring to mind the programming needed just to show you which station is tuned.

Computer scientists are sometimes a little different. It takes an unusual mind set to look at data about data. Though these people do not always fit in the typical social mold, they are an important part of the population. Fiddling away in the background, they slowly make things easier for everyone else.

It is true that Computer Science uses computers. Always keep in mind that the computer is a tool that we use to accomplish our work, but it is not necessarily the work itself. Computer Science is a science.


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