Box 10.3Essential Concepts of Computer Science for the Biologist

Key for the computer scientist is the notion of a field that focuses on information, on understanding of computing activities through mathematical and engineering models and based on theory and abstraction, on the ways of representing and processing information, and on the application of scientific principles and methodologies to the development and maintenance of computer systems—whether they are composed of hardware, software, or both.

There are many views of understanding the essential concepts of computer science. One view, developed in 1991 in the NRC report Computing the Future, is that the key intellectual themes in computing are algorithmic thinking, the representation of information, and computer programs.1

  • An algorithm is an unambiguous sequence of steps for processing information. Of particular relevance is how the speed of the algorithm varies as a function of problem size—the topic of algorithmic complexity. Typically, a result from algorithmic complexity will indicate the scaling relationships between how long it takes to solve a problem and the size of the problem when the solution of the problem is based on a specific algorithm. Thus, algorithm A might solve a problem in a time of order N2, which means that a problem that is 100 times as large would take 1002 = 10,000 times as long to solve, whereas a faster algorithm B might solve the same problem in time of order N ln N, which means a problem 100 times as large would take 100 ln 100 = 460.5 times as long to solve. Such results are important because all computer programs embed algorithms within them. Depending on the functional relationship between run time and problem size, a given program that works well on a small set of test data may—or may not—work well (run in a reasonable time) for a larger set of real data. Theoretical computer science thus imposes constraints on real programs that software developers ignore at their own peril.
  • The representation of information or a problem in an appropriate manner is often the first step in designing an algorithm, and the choice of one representation or another can make a problem easy or difficult, and its solution slow or fast. Two issues arise: (1) how should the abstraction be represented, and (2) how should the representation be structured properly to allow efficient access for common operations? For example, a circle of radius 2 can be represented by an equation of the form x2 + y2 = 4 or as a set of points on the circle ((0.00, 2.00), (0.25, 1.98), (0.50, 1.94), (0.75, 1.85), (1.00, 1.73), (1.25, 1.56), (1.50, 1.32), (1.75, 0.97), (2.00, 0.00)), and so on. Depending on the purpose, one or the other of these representations may be more useful. If the circle of radius 2 is just a special case of a problem in which circles of many different radii are involved, representation as an equation may be more appropriate. If many circles of radius 2 have to be drawn on a screen and speed is important, a listing of the points on the circle may provide a faster basis for drawing such circles.
  • A computer program expresses algorithms and structure information using a “programming language.” Such languages provide a way to represent an algorithm precisely enough that a “high-level” description (i.e., one that is easily understood by humans) can be translated mechanically (“compiled”) into a “low-level” version that the computer can carry out (“execute”); the execution of a program by a computer is what allows the algorithm to be realized tangibly, instructing the computer to perform the tasks the person has requested. Computer programs are thus the essential link between intellectual constructs such as algorithms and information representations and the computers that perform useful tasks.

This last point is often misunderstood. For many outsiders, computer science is the same as computer programming—a view reinforced by many introductory “computer science” courses that emphasize the writing of computer programs. But it is better to understand computer programs as the specialized medium in which the ideas and abstractions of computer science are tangibly manifested. Focusing on the writing of the computer program without giving careful consideration to the abstractions embodied in the program is not unlike understanding the writing of a novel as no more than the rules of grammar and spelling.

Algorithmic thinking, information representation, and computer programs are themes central to all subfields of computer science and engineering research. They also provide material for intellectual study in and of themselves, often with important practical results. The study of algorithms is as challenging as any area of mathematics, and one of practical importance as well, since improperly chosen or designed algorithms may solve problems in a highly inefficient manner. The study of programs is a broad area, ranging from the highly formal study of mathematically proving programs correct to very practical considerations regarding tools with which to specify, write, debug, maintain, and modify very large software systems (otherwise called software engineering). Information representation is the central theme underlying the study of data structures (how information can best be represented for computer processing) and much of human-computer interaction (how information can best be represented to maximize its utility for human beings).

Finally, computer science is closely tied to an underlying technological substrate that evolves rapidly. This substrate is the “stuff” out of which computational hardware is made, and the exponential growth that characterizes its evolution makes it possible to construct ever-larger, ever-more-complex systems—systems that are not predictable based on an understanding of their individual components. (As one example, the properties of the Internet prove a rich and surprisingly complex area of study even though its components—computers, routers, fiber-optic cables—are themselves well understood.)

A second report of the National Research Council described fluency with information technology as requiring three kinds of knowledge: skills in using contemporary IT, foundational concepts about IT and computing, and intellectual capabilities needed to think about and use IT for purposeful work.2 The listing below is the perspective of this report on essential concepts of IT for everyone:

  • Computers (e.g., programs as a sequence of steps, memory as a repository for program and data, overall organization, including relationship to peripheral devices).
  • Information systems (e.g., hardware and software components, people and processes, interfaces (both technology interfaces and human-computer interfaces), databases, transactions, consistency, availability, persistent storage, archiving, audit trails, security and privacy and their technological underpinnings).
  • Networks: physical structure (messages, packets, switching, routing, addressing, congestion, local area networks, wide area networks, bandwidth, latency, point-to-point communication, multicast, broadcast, Ethernet, mobility), and logical structure (client/server, interfaces, layered protocols, standards, network services).
  • Digital representation of information: concept of information encoding in binary form; different information encodings such as ASCII, digital sound, images, and video/movies; precision, conversion and interoperability (e.g., of file formats), resolution, fidelity, transformation, compression, and encryption; standardization of representations to support communication.
  • Information organization (including forms, structure, classification and indexing, searching and retrieving, assessing information quality, authoring and presentation, and citation; search engines for text, images, video, audio).
  • Modeling and abstraction: methods and techniques for representing real-world phenomena as computer models, first in appropriate forms such as systems of equations, graphs, and relationships, and then in appropriate programming objects such as arrays or lists or procedures. Topics include continuous and discrete
  • models, discrete time events, randomization, and convergence, as well as the use of abstraction to hide irrelevant detail.
  • Algorithmic thinking and programming: concepts of algorithmic thinking, including functional decomposition, repetition (iteration and/or recursion), basic data organization (record, array, list), generalization and parameterization, algorithm vs. program, top-down design, and refinement.
  • Universality and computability: ability of any computer to perform any computational task.
  • Limitations of information technology: notions of complexity, growth rates, scale, tractability, decidability, and state explosion combine to express some of the limitations of information technology; connections to applications, such as text search, sorting, scheduling, and debugging.
  • Societal impact of information and information technology: technical basis for social concerns about privacy, intellectual property, ownership, security, weak/strong encryption, inferences about personal characteristics based on electronic behavior such as monitoring Web sites visited, “netiquette,” “spamming,” and free speech in the Internet environment.

A third perspective is provided by Steven Salzberg, senior director of bioinformatics at the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland. In a tutorial paper for biologists, he lists the following areas as important for biologists to understand:3

  • Basic computational concepts (algorithms, program execution speed, computing time and space requirements as a function of input size; really expensive computations),
  • Machine learning concepts (learning from data, memory-based reasoning),
  • Where to store learned knowledge (decision trees, neural networks),
  • Search (defining a search space, search space size, tree-based search),
  • Dynamic programming, and
  • Basic statistics and Markov chains.

The discussion below is adapted from Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, National Research Council, Computing the Future: A Broader Agenda for Computer Science and Engineering, National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1992.


Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, National Research Council, Being Fluent with Information Technology, National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1999.


S.L. Salzberg, “A Tutorial Introduction to Computation for Biologists,” Computational Methods in Molecular Biology, S.L. Salzberg, D. Searls, and S. Kasif, eds., Elsevier Science Ltd., New York, 1998.

From: 10, Culture and Research Infrastructure

Cover of Catalyzing Inquiry at the Interface of Computing and Biology
Catalyzing Inquiry at the Interface of Computing and Biology.
National Research Council (US) Committee on Frontiers at the Interface of Computing and Biology; Wooley JC, Lin HS, editors.
Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2005.
Copyright © 2005, National Academy of Sciences.

NCBI Bookshelf. A service of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.