With the history and pioneers of computing in the British news this week, I’ve been thinking about a common misconception: many people regard computer science as very closely related to Mathematics, perhaps even a sub-branch of Mathematics. Mathematicians and physical scientists, who often know little and that little often outdated about modern computer science and software engineering, are among the worst offenders here. For some reason, they often think that computer science consists of Fortran programming and the study of algorithms, which has been a long way from the truth for, oh, the last few decades. (I have past personal experience of the online vitriol which ignorant pure mathematicians can unleash on those who dare to suggest that computer science might involve the application of ideas from philosophy, economics, sociology or ecology.)
So here’s my story: Computer Science is the love-child of Pure Mathematics and Philosophy.
The two disciplines once had a brief fling, some years ago, which led to a child they called Computer Science, who is now a young teenager. Philosophy ran off to leave poor-old Mathematics to raise the boy as a single parent. So, every day, Maths, whose intentions are surely honourable but whose methods lack sympathy or emotion, forces CS to get dressed and ready for school, to eat his greens, tidy his room, do his homework, practice his trombone, go to bed at the same time each night, to just apply some self-discipline and rigour and commitment, god-dammit, can’t you, boy?! Philosophy, off cavorting with fresh young paramours like Political Science and Art History and Film Studies, sends some money now and again, but plays hardly any role in the boy’s daily upbringing. However, every couple of months, Philosophy turns up unannounced in a fast, shiny red convertible to take the boy for the weekend, and when this happens, on Saturdays they usually go sailing or go to the zoo or a stock car race, and then stay up late eating pizza and drinking coke and watching computer-animated sci-fi movies on DVD, and then talking late into the night about life, the universe and everything, and sometimes the boy is even allowed to have a beer. And on Sundays, Philosophy never gets dressed up and goes to church like Maths always does, but instead sleeps late and maybe takes him surfing, or they go for brunch, where they have tomato juice (a whole glass, as a drink, with pepper!), and then afterwards they drink real capuccinos and get ice-creams (which Maths never lets him have), and they spend the afternoon chatting to women they don’t know on the pier, or even visit a good friend of Philosophy who lives in a basement, smokes French cigarettes and listens to jazz. Of course, the boy has a whale of a time, and talks about nothing else to Maths when he gets home, for days on end, until Maths is finally forced to tell him not to say any more about it, that’s just about enough out of you, and don’t you mention the name of that wicked Philosophy in this house again, boy, or I’ll beat you with my slide rule!
The only consolation between these rare visits from Philosophy is the old man who lives next door, Uncle Electronic Engineering, who has a fascinating workshop, with all manner of things in it, at the back of his house, hidden from view by the trees in his overgrown garden. So, of a late afternoon or quiet day on the weekend, when Maths is engaged in playing correspondence chess with a penfriend in Canada or sorting through the dresser in an upstairs bedroom, re-arranging (yet again!) the socks by size and colour and age and brand, or double-checking the cross-indexes Maths had made of all the old back-issues of TV Guide, the boy CS sneaks out to shoot the breeze with Uncle EE. The old man always has plenty of time for the boy, and is always friendly and encouraging, and tells the boy he should dream as much as he wants, and lets him play with stuff in the workshop to his heart’s content, and always tells him not to ever worry about the “readin, ritin, an rithmetic” stuff that Maths never stops nagging about. There are more important things in life than problems with words such as split infinitives and crossing t’s and dotting i’s, the old man is fond of saying. There’s life itself, which has to be lived, not written about!