The Map of Computer Science: New Animation Presents a Survey of Computer Science, from Alan Turing to “Augmented Reality”

I’ve nev­er want­ed to start a sen­tence with “I’m old enough to remem­ber…” because, well, who does? But here we are. I remem­ber the enor­mous­ly suc­cess­ful Apple IIe and Com­modore 64, and a world before Microsoft. Smart phones were sci­ence fic­tion. To do much more than word process or play games one had to learn a pro­gram­ming lan­guage. These ancient days seemed at the time—and in hind­sight as well—to be the very dawn of com­put­ing. Before the per­son­al com­put­er, such devices were the size of kitchen appli­ances and were hid­den away in mil­i­tary instal­la­tions, uni­ver­si­ties, and NASA labs.

But of course we all know that the his­to­ry of com­put­ing goes far beyond the ear­ly 80s: at least back to World War II, and per­haps even much far­ther. Do we begin with the aba­cus, the 2,200-Year-Old Antikythera Mech­a­nism, the astro­labe, Ada Lovelace and Charles Bab­bage? The ques­tion is maybe one of def­i­n­i­tions. In the short, ani­mat­ed video above, physi­cist, sci­ence writer, and YouTube edu­ca­tor Dominic Wal­li­man defines the com­put­er accord­ing to its basic bina­ry func­tion of “just flip­ping zeros and ones,” and he begins his con­densed his­to­ry of com­put­er sci­ence with trag­ic genius Alan Tur­ing of Tur­ing Test and Bletch­ley Park code­break­ing fame.

Turing’s most sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to com­put­ing came from his 1936 con­cept of the “Tur­ing Machine,” a the­o­ret­i­cal mech­a­nism that could, writes the Cam­bridge Com­put­er Lab­o­ra­to­ry “sim­u­late ANY com­put­er algo­rithm, no mat­ter how com­pli­cat­ed it is!” All oth­er designs, says Walliman—apart from a quan­tum computer—are equiv­a­lent to the Tur­ing Machine, “which makes it the foun­da­tion of com­put­er sci­ence.” But since Turing’s time, the sim­ple design has come to seem end­less­ly capa­ble of adap­ta­tion and inno­va­tion.

Wal­li­man illus­trates the com­put­er’s expo­nen­tial growth by point­ing out that a smart phone has more com­put­ing pow­er than the entire world pos­sessed in 1963, and that the com­put­ing capa­bil­i­ty that first land­ed astro­nauts on the moon is equal to “a cou­ple of Nin­ten­dos” (first gen­er­a­tion clas­sic con­soles, judg­ing by the image). But despite the hubris of the com­put­er age, Wal­li­man points out that “there are some prob­lems which, due to their very nature, can nev­er be solved by a com­put­er” either because of the degree of uncer­tain­ty involved or the degree of inher­ent com­plex­i­ty. This fas­ci­nat­ing, yet abstract dis­cus­sion is where Walliman’s “Map of Com­put­er Sci­ence” begins, and for most of us this will prob­a­bly be unfa­mil­iar ter­ri­to­ry.

We’ll feel more at home once the map moves from the region of Com­put­er The­o­ry to that of Com­put­er Engi­neer­ing, but while Wal­li­man cov­ers famil­iar ground here, he does not dumb it down. Once we get to appli­ca­tions, we’re in the realm of big data, nat­ur­al lan­guage pro­cess­ing, the inter­net of things, and “aug­ment­ed real­i­ty.” From here on out, com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy will only get faster, and weird­er, despite the fact that the “under­ly­ing hard­ware is hit­ting some hard lim­its.” Cer­tain­ly this very quick course in Com­put­er Sci­ence only makes for an intro­duc­to­ry sur­vey of the dis­ci­pline, but like Wallman’s oth­er maps—of math­e­mat­ics, physics, and chem­istry—this one pro­vides us with an impres­sive visu­al overview of the field that is both broad and spe­cif­ic, and that we like­ly wouldn’t encounter any­where else.

As with his oth­er maps, Wal­li­man has made this the Map of Com­put­er Sci­ence avail­able as a poster, per­fect for dorm rooms, liv­ing rooms, or wher­ev­er else you might need a reminder.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Com­put­er Sci­ence Cours­es

How Ada Lovelace, Daugh­ter of Lord Byron, Wrote the First Com­put­er Pro­gram in 1842–a Cen­tu­ry Before the First Com­put­er

Watch Break­ing the Code, About the Life & Times of Alan Tur­ing (1996)

The Map of Math­e­mat­ics: Ani­ma­tion Shows How All the Dif­fer­ent Fields in Math Fit Togeth­er

The Map of Physics: Ani­ma­tion Shows How All the Dif­fer­ent Fields in Physics Fit Togeth­er

The Map of Chem­istry: New Ani­ma­tion Sum­ma­rizes the Entire Field of Chem­istry in 12 Min­utes

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Susan Corwin says:

    I would sug­gest that you have giv­en a good “overview/summary”.
    As a map, not so much:
    .….“the map is not the ter­ri­to­ry”

  • Thorsten Altenkirch says:

    Nice overview.
    The state­ment about the unde­cid­abil­i­ty of the halt­ing prob­lem is a bit mis­lead­ing. There are no spe­cif­ic pro­grams for which it is impos­si­ble to decide wether they hold or not but there is no algo­rithm that does it in gen­er­al.

  • Bob Frankston says:

    I see all the details but I don’t see the soul or the big ideas.

  • Timothy J. McGlynn says:

    Hi and good day. Infor­ma­tive. Thanks much, and have a great day.

  • Telkom University says:

    What changes or addi­tions would you sug­gest to improve the over­all qual­i­ty of the post?

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