Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Informatics

In Europe, the academic departments that in the US would be called "Computer Science" are generally called "Informatics." It's a nice name, the study of information, and perhaps it plays a part in escaping the curse of the computer scientist, of being too closely associated with computer programming. (I remember back in grad school someone posted to the USENET group for the CS department and asked a fairly ridiculous question about how to use Microsoft Mail. I responded and asked if they had had car problems, would they have asked the mechanical engineering department? Yeah, I was a jerk, but still.)

But what's ironic about Informatics and Computer Science in general is that it's really made comparatively little contribution to the scientific study of information. A couple of days ago I made reference to Herbert Simon's idea of a science of the artificial. As chemistry is to chemical engineering, what is to computer science? Most computer science today is a design field, designing programs, yes, but also designing algorithms or data structures or architectures. But still, all design. Where's the foundational science of information?

And the answer is, as you might guess, physics and mathematics. Clever physicists are extending the ideas of thermodynamics and entropy to include information content. People like John Wheeler at Princeton have been arguing that the bit is a fundamental physical entity, and perhaps even more fundamental than matter. Of course, Claude Shannon, a mathematician, created the idea of information science (and to be fair in those days there were no computer science departments anyway), but it's been physics that's carried the banner onward. But physical information science is a soulless sort of creature. It deals with bits, sure, but does not concern itself with the content of those bits.

One fascinating newcomer in this field is biology. If it is true, as some physicists aver, that matter, energy, and information are co-equal entities in our universe, constantly changing form from one to another, then the study of information deserves more attention. The study of matter and energy has long been the province of physics and chemistry. Perhaps the definition of life, that slippery goal, is merely some arrangement that turns matter and energy into information. In a sense entirely removed from bioinformatics and genomic databases, perhaps biology is the real information science.