Thinking Like a Computer Scientist

written on May 29, 2013

Someone asked Donald Knuth, who I’ve quoted before, why he uses the phrase: “A computer scientists perspective” and “How [he] distinguishes that from other points of view?”

Knuth, while reflecting on the rapid adoption of Computer Science programs across many universities in the 1960’s, said:

I’m convinced that computer science grew so fast and is vital today because there are people all over the world who have a peculiar way of thinking, a certain way of structuring knowledge in their heads, a mentality that we now associate with a discipline of its own. This mentality isn’t sharply focused, in the space of all possible ways of thinking; but it’s different enough from other ways — that the people who had it in the old days were scattered among many different departments, more or less orphans in their universities.

A Historical Accident:

… The fact that this mode of thinking never had a name until quite recently is just a historical accident…

I didn’t choose to be a computer scientist because my main mission in life was to advance computation. I chose computer science simply because I was good at it. For some reason, my peculiar way of thinking correlated well with computers.

Knuth continues on…

One of the main characteristics of a computer science mentality is the ability to jump very quickly between levels of abstraction, between a low level and a high level, almost unconsciously

Another characteristic … (is the ability) to deal with non uniform structures — case 1, case 2, case 3 — while a mathematician will tend to want one unifying axiom that governs an entire system.

I appreciate the way Knuth thinks about subjects. His writing is simple to read, yet rich in content and ideas. I believe it is this ability — to explain profound ideas in simple and tangible ways — that makes him an ideal Computer Scientist.

This content is from a lecture he gave at MIT in 1999. He was introducing a lecture series titled: Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About where he covers the topic of faith. You can read the notes from his first lecture. The complete lecture series was published as a book available on Amazon.