Wednesday, November 17, 2004

How about Informaticians?

A dinner conversation with my daughters.

Annie (age 9): How many computer scientists are there in the world?
Me (Wildly Guessing): About 100,000.
Molly (age 6): I know there are at least two. You and our computer teacher at school. Someone asked him if he was a scientist and he said, "yes, I am a computer scientist."

I don't think Molly's computer teacher tried to mislead; he just did a play on words. But it was enough to fool a six-year old and I suspect many adults as well. Maybe we need a new name for people in our field.


  1. I'm not sure I understood this post: is the point that only people who do research can call themselves
    "computer scientists"? Why? Don't people with (say) an undergraduate degree in physics call themselves "physicists"?

    Or maybe this goes back to the question of whether "computer science" as taught at the undergraduate level
    is really a "science", or might better be called "information technology".

  2. 'informatician' makes it sound like 'mortician' :)

  3. To some extent, the word "scientist" is used for
    people who do "advanced" study in some
    particular field of science (or engineering).
    An undergraduate degree in a particular field
    does not usually qualify one to claim "advanced"
    knowledge and hece undergrad math majors don't
    usually call themseleves mathematicians.
    Of course there are exceptions to this loose
    interpretation but, in my opinion,
    by and large a scientist has
    to be pursuing the advancement of science, not
    simply have a basic degree in that area.

    By that same token, not all scientists
    are technologists. It is snobbery to claim
    superiority of one over the other but the
    words should convey as accurately as possible
    the main preoccupation of the person.

    I think there is some difficulty with
    computer "science" because several of
    the first departments started out of
    math and it is only later that they became
    part of engineering disciplines.

  4. Maybe we should call ourselves applied mathematicians? It's virtually hopeless that people will know what I mean when I say I'm a computer science student. The most common reaction is "oh, so you build computers?"

  5. When I've first read the term "informatician", my gut reaction was on the lines of "but I am not really that, I would say I'm more of an algorithmician"... But then again, other people reading this would make the same claim with the two terms permuted.

    So - is there a possibility of a word describing the entirety of our discipline? And is the lack of one a predictor of a future split?

    - Eldar.

  6. But how do you know that her teacher isn't a computer scientist? Having a Ph.D or a position as a professor at a University are not the only ways that you can be a scientist. Many "scientists" never had a Ph.D nor a position at a University. Archimedes certainly didn't, neither did Einstein initially (he was a patent clerk), nor Pierre de Fermat (who was a lawyer, I think) nor Foucault (who was an engineer).

    Your daughter's teacher could very well be doing research in computer science. See news about Carolyn Dean as an example of a mere lecturer cracking the Jacobian conjecture in mathematics at

    Besides I have heard the claim that mathematics (of which I guess computer science is a branch of) is not a "science" so perhaps your field should be called Algorithmics?

  7. How about "Computational Sciences?" similar to "Earth Sciences" or "Health Sciences"?

    This would emphasize that we are concerned with all aspects of computation not just with physical computers.

    Still, the problem of definition is inherent to the field, computer science is about a bunch of loosely related ideas and not one huge theoretical framework.

    In this aspect, it is more like combinatorics than topology for example.

    Tim Gowers had a great essay talking a little about this:

    In the end I don't think it is that big a deal.

    As long as we have students, funding and most importantly good problems to work on, it doesn't matter that much how we define ourselves.

  8. In french, computer scientists (or people related to computers in any way) are called informaticians. I dont think "informaticians" is a good choice word.
    By the way, the situation is really worse in french, since a computer is not even called a computer, but an "ordinateur" (someone please give me the translation and the reason for this terminology!).

    Change of terminology in english could perhaps be wisely adapted to french
    and improve the poor french terminology, which I have felt some concern for more then once, but this would require sopmething else then "informatician"!...

  9. This might be Peter Naur's influence - he thought "dataology" was the ideal term; it caught on in some Scandinavian countries. An interesting fellow - it's worth googling him.

    "Ordinateur" means "counter" or "enumerator" (in English, think "ordinals"), which is a more precise term than "computer", imho.

  10. Emil Post, who proved Godel's incompleteness theorem and Turing's undecidability a decade before either of them was also a school teacher. Maybe Molly can find for us a proof of P \neq NP tucked away in the drawer of this computer scientist. ;-)

    More seriously, I agree with the naming issue---I usually use "computer science researcher" often qualified with "really an applied mathematician"... etc., for lack of a better term. Theoretical computer scientist maybe appropriate for the FOCS/STOC community, but obviously does not cover the whole CS community.