Computer Science Is Not About Computers, Any More Than Astronomy Is About Telescopes

Edsger W. Dijkstra? Alan Perlis? Jacques Arsac? George Johnson? Donald Knuth? Matthew Dennis Haines? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Computers are the fundamental tool employed within the field of computer science; however, the discipline transcends this tool. Here are three attempts to articulate this viewpoint:

Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.

Biology Is not about microscopes, and computer science is not about computers.

“Computer science” is a terrible name. Astronomy is not called “telescope science”, and biology is not called “microscope science”.

This saying has been attributed to Dutch computer scientist Edsger W. Dijkstra. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match located by QI appeared in the 1986 book “Machinery of the Mind: Inside the New Science of Artificial Intelligence” by science journalist George Johnson. The attribution was anonymous. Boldface added to excerpts: 1

The possibility of a science in which all the world is thought of computationally casts the study of computers in an important new light. As its practitioners are fond of saying, computer science is not about computers, any more than astronomy is about telescopes, or biology about microscopes. These devices are tools for observing worlds otherwise inaccessible. The computer is a tool for exploring the world of complex processes, whether they involve cells, stars, or the human mind.

This saying has been difficult to trace, and this article only presents a snapshot of current research. There is evidence that the underlying notion emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, but the initial formulations were not concise and direct.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Computer Science Is Not About Computers, Any More Than Astronomy Is About Telescopes

Notes:

  1. 1986, Machinery of the Mind: Inside the New Science of Artificial Intelligence by George Johnson, Chapter 4: The Art of Programming, Quote Page 81 and 82, Times Books: A Division of Random House Inc., New York. (Verified with hardcopy)