Is everything a form of computation? That’s what some scientists are saying. I found the CACM article “Computing is a Natural Science”, by Peter Denning on reddit recently. I looked at the title and thought, “Yeah, so?” When I took computer science at Colorado State University 14 years ago it was in the College of Natural Sciences. At some universities it was in the College of Engineering. I don’t think it got to where it was at my school because the faculty was being extraordinarily perceptive. I don’t remember my teachers talking about this concept that natural processes are being “computed”. Mathematics was in the Natural Sciences college as well. Computer science is historically an offshoot of mathematics. So it follows that it would be in the same college.
Anyway, at first glance I thought the article was trying to make a provocative argument that CS should be in the Natural Sciences college…and perhaps it should. The article is deeper than it appeared. Mark Guzdial gave a good analysis of it (Update 5-24-2013: the blog where he wrote this has disappeared), so I won’t repeat it here. This quote from it is a good summary:
Peter [Denning] makes the point that scientists are discovering that much of nature is about information processing. Books like Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science make the point that algorithms underlie much of nature–“nature is written in the language of computation, challenging Galileo’s claim that it is written in mathematics.” Thus, studying computing is studying nature. I highly recommend the article. I particularly like his conclusion where he points out, “Computing is no longer a science of just the artificial [my emphasis]. It is the study of information processes, natural and artificial.”
It dovetails into something he’s been talking about for a while, that CS is branching out and being adopted by other disciplines, such as the sciences. For example, programming is being taught in physics classes at some universities now. Students are expected to write programs related to the material as part of the course.
The CACM article reminds me of one I heard about in Scientific American a while back. Someone published a theory a few years ago saying that the universe is actually a holographic computer (just linking to this for the summary).
In the next part I’ll discuss a speech that Alan Kay gave 10 years ago where he makes the same points in regards to molecular biology. I’m speculating, but it’s not too difficult to believe that Kay figured out there is computation going on inside of biological cells more than 30 years ago when he developed OOP and Smalltalk, perhaps before then. As he conceived it, OOP uses biological metaphores.
I can understand the notion of biological computation. Once you see how Kay explains it, I think it’ll make sense to you as well. I guess this makes sense for the other fields of science if you view computation as just a series of predictable and quantifiable stimuli and responses, where the responses follow discernable rules.