Computers, telescopes, and studying them

One of the famous computer science one-liners states that “computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.” It is most commonly attributed to Edsger Dijkstra, but I’ve struggled to find where exactly did Dijkstra say that. It seems that no-one who attributes the quote to Dijkstra includes its source. But keyword search on “telescope” and “astronomy” can’t find that quote in Edsger Dijkstra Archives. The ACM Digital Library’s keyword search doesn’t work very well for old scanned documents, but it doesn’t find any occurrences of “telescopes” in that context before 2000, in a Ubiquity article where William Wulf wrote, “We don’t have a science of telescopes. We have a science of astronomy! Well, now we have a science of computers, and it’s well accepted.

Digging deeper, I found Michael Fellows mention the actual quote “CS is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes” in a 1991 paper “Computer SCIENCE and Mathematics in the Elementary Schools”, and I found a story of the quote in that paper. The story tracked down Dijkstra’s use of the phrase to a 2001 video for the Dutch TV.

The same idea was expressed already in 1974 by J. Hebenstreit in the form “while the processing of information is a science it is not one which can be apprehended by merely studying the basic tools, i.e. the computer and programming languages, any more than astronomy can be reduced to the detailed study and operation of telescopes.”

Yet, what’s important about that quote is how broadly it was adopted, and what sort of an image does that give of computing as a discipline and of the people in the field.



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