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On Attributing a Quote

Spring 2021

I recently happened across a Quoteinvestigator page discussing the quote "Computer science is not about computers, any more than astronomy is about telescopes." It seems to be a hard quote to attribute, because it shows up in many different variations over time. In the end, it is sort of attributed to George Johnson, in his 1986 book "Machinery of the Mind." However, all quotes aren't conveniently taken from writing.

I knew I had heard nearly the exact same saying somewhere else though, in something that is likely to pre-date Johnson's book. Harold Abelson and Gerald Jay Sussman are two MIT professors who, among other things, famously taught the course "Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs." They also wrote a book with the same name, and although the quote is not in that book, it's used by Harold Abelson in the very first few minutes of the first lecture of that course, as recorded in 1986. It's not unthinkable that they've opened their course with that statement before it was recorded in 1986, and it's not unthinkable that the many experts Johnson spoke to when writing his book had heard the expression from Abelson or Sussman in some context.

The video can be found on Youtube and is released under the Creative Commons license. I've taken the liberty of transcribing how Harold Abelson opens the lecture:

"Computer science is a terrible name for this business. First of all, it's not a science. It, ah, might be engineering or it might be art. But we'll actually see that computer so-called science actually has a lot in common with magic, and we'll see that in this course. So it's not a science. It's also not really very much about computers. And it's not about computers in the same sense that, that physics isn't really about particle accelerators, and, ah, biology is not really about microscopes and Petri dishes. And, ah, it's not about computers in the same sense that geometry is not really about, uh, using surveying instruments."
- Harold Abelson in MIT 6.001 Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, Lecture 1A: Overview and Introduction to Lisp, 1986.

Quoteinvestigator did some mighty fine digging here and doesn't claim to have the definitive answer. Neither do I. Further investigation is needed before reaching a conclusive attribution of this saying.