Computing: the fourth great domain of science

Oct 27 2009 Published by under computer science, culture of science, engineering

The September Communications of the ACM has a provocative article by Peter J. Denning and Paul S. Rosenbloom, Computing: the fourth great domain of science (OA version). It's well written and persuasive, certainly worth reading the whole thing.

Science has a long-standing tradition of grouping fields into three categories: the physical, life, and social sciences. The physical sciences focus on physical phenomena, especially materials, energy, electromagnetism, gravity, motion, and quantum effects. The life sciences focus on living things, especially species, metabolism, reproduction, and evolution. The social sciences focus on human behavior, mind, economic, and social interactions. We use the term "great domains of science" for these categories.


The core phenomena of the computing sciences domain--computation, communication, coordination, recollection, automation, evaluation, and design--apply universally, whether in the artificial information processes generated by computers or in the natural information processes found in the other domains. Thus, information processes in quantum physics, materials science, chemistry, biology, genetics, business, organizations, economics, psychology, and mind are all subject to the same space and time limitations predicted by universal Turing machines. That fact underpins many of the interactions between computing and the other fields and underlies the recent claim that computing is a science of both the natural and the artificial.


Computing is pervasive because it is a fundamental way of approaching the world that helps understand its own crucial questions while also assisting other domains advance their understandings of the world. Understanding computing as a great domain of science will help to achieve better explanations of computing, increase the attraction of the field to newcomers, and demonstrate parity with other fields of science.

To say that computing is a domain of science does not conflict with computing's status as a field of engineering or even mathematics. Computing has large slices that qualify as science, engineering, and mathematics. No one of those slices tells the whole story of the field.

The exercise of examining computing as a domain of science reveals that the extent of computing's reach and influence cannot be seen without a map that explicitly displays the modes of implementation and interaction. It also reveals that we need to revisit deep questions in computing because our standard answers, developed for computer scientists, do not apply to other fields of science. Finally, it confirms that computing principles are distinct from the principles of the other domains.

So, what do you think? Is computing the fourth great domain of science?

5 responses so far

  • Markk says:

    No it is math at bottom. And Engineering in practice. It is a denigration of engineering that one would have to call the greatest feat of the field as something else to get it respect. I am slightly offended by the post in fact, being a professional in the field.

  • Paul Murray says:

    Computing - applied computing - is physics at bottom. Thermodynamics. One bit of information = k ln(2) J/k .

    Thermodynamics itself is math at bottom - so is QM. It's no less science for that.

  • bsci says:

    This doesn't make any sense to me. While it's nice to group things, the Physical/Life/Social categories are actually very fuzzy. Part of my own research could fit into all three categories with a healthy dose of computing thrown in. (I'm a bit odd, but I'm not THAT much of an exception).

    A think a good exercise to justify this concept and why computing would be a distinct separate domain would require taking actual separate research projects and try to place them in separate domains. That might have worked 50+ years ago, but now it would be futile. Instead of trying to fit computing into a passe construct, it would make more sense to just accept that everything overlaps and computer science research has applications and roles in many of them.

  • John Dupuis says:

    markk, Paul, thanks for the comments. I guess we'll have to take it up with Denning and Rosenbloom!

  • John Dupuis says:

    bsci, I hear you. I think the problem is that computing has a bit of a "Are we really a science?" syndrome that manifests itself from time to time in articles like this. Yes, science is increasingly multidisciplinary and only going to get more so, but I think the computing people are often looking for a more defined pigeon hole to at least start out from. And of course, there are many that aren't worried about the issue at all. I'm a bit of both, so when I see an interesting article that gets the conversation started, I'll point it out.

Leave a Reply