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Communications of the ACM

Letters to the Editor

Is Computing Science?

Letters to the Editor


Peter J. Denning's Viewpoint "The Science in Computer Science" (May 2013) explored the ongoing dispute over scientific boundaries within computer science. The root word in Latin for science is "knowledge," and computer science likewise concerns knowledge. However, the boundaries separating the sciences, and knowledge in general, have never been clear and definite.

In the mid-20th century, John von Neumann was emblematic of the idea that there are no clear boundaries. "Mathematician" is the word most often used to describe him, though he was also a physicist, economist, engineer, game theorist, and meteorologist, as well as computer scientist, even though computer science did not exist as a discipline at the time.

The term "von Neumann architecture" reflects how von Neumann's professional life defined the principles of modern digital computing. Was he a computer scientist? If we could ask him, he would say yes, because he appreciated that he used computing as a tool, even though such an assertion would have alienated many colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. He ignored the historical boundaries of the disciplines, but his contributions expanded them all because knowledge imposes no restrictions on what or how knowledge is applied. In this light, the tool makes the man. Can one be a surgeon without being able to use a scalpel, an astronomer without being able to use a telescope, or a microbiologist without being able to use a microscope?

The reason computing is so exciting today is precisely because such boundaries are irrelevant. Before Google, who would have imagined a "search engine" would become a multibillion-dollar industry or that computing power combined with powerful telescopes would explore for Earth-like planets light-years away? The power of computing is itself the power of knowledge.

If there were indeed clear boundaries within the sciences, Thomas S. Kuhn's 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions exposed them as untenable. His study of what constitutes "normal" vs. "revolutionary" science has been controversial ever since because drawing boundaries is nearly impossible.

Computing practitioners who feel slighted when someone says their profession is less than scientific should calm themselves. Computing is at the heart of the expansion of knowledge in practically every discipline, without regard to prior boundaries. Unlike any other tool ever devised, computing manages to straddle Boolean logic, materials science, control of electron flow, manufacturing know-how, and semanticity. Moreover, it has no inherent size, with Moore's Law applying regardless of scale. Semanticity means computers are the first machines to be able to store and manipulate symbols that are also meaningful to humans.

Knowledge is at the heart of computing, and knowledge has but one boundary, between itself and ignorance and superstition. Von Neumann made no effort to justify his professional pursuits, recognizing that knowledge is but one thing, available to all who think.

Francis Hsu, Rockville, MD

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Author's Response

Hsu eloquently argues on behalf of my main conclusionthat computing science cuts through many fields while enriching them all with an understanding of information and information transformationsa conclusion that will eventually be widely accepted. The challenge in the near term is that many K12 school systems do not recognize computing as a science, nor do they have computing courses, something many people are working to change. I hope our Ubiquity symposium ( provides them some needed ammunition.

Peter J. Denning, Monterey, CA

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Reconciling ACM Bibliometric Numbers

Scott E. Delman's Publisher's Corner column "A Few Good Reasons to Publish in Communications" (May 2013) included an unexplained oddity in its otherwise interesting bibliometric numbers. The figure said Communications has published 11,257 articles, of which 11,256 are available for download. Is there really exactly only one article not available for download? And if so, which one?

Mark J. Nelson, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Editor's Response

Upon investigation, the ACM Digital Library team discovered we were indeed shy one .pdf document. A 200-word announcement listed in the Table of Contents of the April 2007 Communications lacked an accompanying .pdfhence the discrepancy between publication count and download count. We have rectified the omission and thank you for your careful reading and for bringing it to our attention.

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