What is Computer Science?

CS Blog 1/52

Computer science is the science of computers. Duh. But let’s break it down a little further. What does it mean to do science? What separates science from other academic disciplines? It makes sense (I guess?) to talk of computer science, but we don’t think of the study of, say, literature as being literature science. Nor would we likely replace the term ‘theatre studies’ with ‘theatre science’ anytime soon.

So what gives? What is science all about? What does it mean to surreptitiously add the word ‘science’ to the ass of a word like ‘computer’? The answer is that science is the methodological, observation-oriented study of the natural world. Biologists study life, that is, the ‘bio’. Chemists study the molecular components that make up our world, and physicists just study every damn thing under the sun. Anything that could be deemed ‘natural’ is fair game to the scientist.

We don’t call philosophers scientists. We call them philosophers. Why not scientists? Well, presumably its because philosophy is, in some sense, not natural. What I mean is that it’s not a naturally occurring phenomenon, unlike, I don’t know, argon. Ergo, the study of philosophy doesn’t count as science. Same goes for theology, for literature, for theatre, etc.

So science is the study of the natural world or, perhaps more accurately, the study of the material world. So then this begs the question: are computers legitimately the subject of scientific enquiry? I mean obviously they are material. A computer exists, just as you or I do. But so do microwave ovens. And we don’t have microwave oven science. So there’s more to it than just that. We aren’t interested in what computers are in a physical sense, we are interested in what they do. So computer science can be thought of as the scientific study of the functions of a computer.

Right. Glad that’s sorted. But now the question remains: what is a computer?

In its simplest form, a computer is a device that computes. ‘To compute’ means to calculate. So a calculator is a form of computer. In fact, it’s worth noting that it is no coincidence that a term like ‘calculate’ that is almost universally associated with the domain of mathematics finds its way into the heart of computing as well. Computers are inherently mathematical creatures. Just as you type in ‘2’, ‘+’, ‘2’ into a calculator, followed by the ‘=’ button and are immediately presented with the numerical outcome ‘4’, computers, too, operate in this simple fashion. Input, output. Number goes in, number comes out.

Here’s a bold claim. The only thing that computers can do is churn out strings of numbers. That’s it. They’re the ultimate one-trick ponies. Input, output. Number goes in, number comes out. Now it goes without saying that computers can do a lot more than that. In a sense. Think of the laptop or phone that you are using right now. It probably has the capacity to browse the internet, to send emails, to pin point your location on the planet, to shoot and edit videos, etc. So in a sense I’m being a jerk to say that all they can do is churn out numbers. But in fact, that really is all they can do. The only reason it looks like they can do all that other stuff is can be broken down into numbers. Type a message to your mum and click send. The computer only knows what to do because your message, and your request, first gets translated into a string of digits. Input, output.

This weird pseudo-simplicity that computers have makes them beguiling indeed, don’t you agree? On the one hand, they rule the world. Life as we know it would go all gooey if the computers all shut down. They control transport systems, the financial markets, rocket launches, you name it. And yet on the other hand they are essentially just electronic dopes, capable only of following strict numerical orders, albeit at breathtaking speeds. Weird, huh.

And now, some more factoidal information about computers, that will likely warrant blog posts of their own, arranged in a catechistic fashion:

What language do computers speak?

They speak a language called ‘binary’. It’s numerical, in a sense, but not as we would normally think of it. In a nutshell, it’s a series of 0s and 1s. So 000100101000100100100001001001 means something to a computer. I don’t know what it means, but it means something.

What are computers made of?

I don’t know. Plastic. Metal. Glass. A bunch of stuff I guess. Go ask your dad.

What are the core components of a computer?

That’s a better question. The core components of a computer are a central processing unit (CPU), input devices, output devices, and memory. More on this topic in a future blog.

Did you make up the word ‘factoidal’?


And finally, here’s an illustration you didn’t ask for:

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