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You and Your Research, Dr. Richard W. Hamming

nfwyt, personal-development10 min read

This is from one of the lectures of Dr.Hamming with the same title.

Hamming was brought in to help other scientists and physicists. ie., stooge. Hamming was envious, so started examining, why they were so different. In his mind, questions were Why? and What is the difference? and started asking scientists after going through their biographies, autobiographies How did you come to do this?. Below are some observations made by Hamming while working with his Great Colleagues at Bell Labs.

It's all a matter of luck

  • Luck favours the prepared mind. When i met Feymen, i knew he will get a Nobel Prize or something. If you see that man, energy and ability, he was going to do something. It was in his nature to be something. So, its, you prepare yourself and luck hits you.
  • Sir Issac Newton said If others would think as hard as I did, then they would get similar results.
  • Very able people, work very hard all the time. They are at the problem all the time.
  • Many great scientists didn't have great IQ
  • Local people cannot see you are doing great work

Most important thing about great people is they believe they can do great work

  • Shannon style "I am not scared of nothing". Learnt from playing chess and advancing queen. This approach is useful when you are stuck and having nothing else to do.

  • Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, "Do you mind if I join you?" They can't say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, "What are the important problems of your field?" And after a week or so, "What important problems are you working on?" And after some more time I came in one day and said, "If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?" I wasn't welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring.

    In the fall, Dave McCall stopped me in the hall and said, "Hamming, that remark of yours got underneath my skin. I thought about it all summer, i.e. what were the important problems in my field. I haven't changed my research," he says, "but I think it was well worthwhile." And I said, "Thank you Dave," and went on. I noticed a couple of months later he was made the head of the department. I noticed the other day he was a Member of the National Academy of Engineering. I noticed he has succeeded. I have never heard the names of any of the other fellows at that table mentioned in science and scientific circles. They were unable to ask themselves, "What are the important problems in my field?"

    If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work. It's perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them. Let me warn you, `important problem' must be phrased carefully.

  • You have to plant acorns which grow into Oak trees. You can work on problem which can become important and matter which have a future and will grow into Oak trees.

  • There is a thin line being strong-willed and stubborn, its same as confidence and over-confidence. Lot of people abandon good idea too soon and cling to bad idea too long.

When you have a vision, you go a long way and excellence is one of the best tracks to use.

When you are working on big problems, keep your mind open dont isolate yourself.

Another trait, it took me a while to notice. I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind. I don't know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing - not much, but enough that they miss fame.

Redefining problems or inverting the problem or changing the nature recoginzing the underlying real problem

You should study your own success as when your time comes, you know how to succeed and if you study your failures you know how to fail. So study success very closely. Study about other people successes, what were the elements of their successes, which elements of that can you adapt to your personality.

Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest

  • You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode's office and said, How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does? He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.* I simply slunk out of the office!

  • What Bode was saying was this: Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest. Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity - it is very much like compound interest. I don't want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime. I took Bode's remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done. I don't like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There's no question about this.

Race is not to the swiftest, the guy who works hard doesn't win

  • The person who works on the right problem at the right time in the right way is what counts nothing else.
  • You need get some hunch of when the problem is ripe and how to go about it

Friday afternoon is for great thoughts.

By great thoughts I mean ones like:

  • What will be the role of computers in all of AT&T?
  • How will computers change science?
    • For example, I came up with the observation at that time that nine out of ten experiments were done in the lab and one in ten on the computer. I made a remark to the vice presidents one time, that it would be reversed, i.e. nine out of ten experiments would be done on the computer and one in ten in the lab.
  • What will be the impact of computers on science and how can I change it?
  • How is it going to change Bell Labs?
  • I thought hard about where was my field going, where were the opportunities, and what were the important things to do. Let me go there so there is a chance I can do important things.
  • I stress on the bigger picture, i stress on the fundamentals. No one knows what the fundamentals will be tomorrow but you can try to ask.
  • There will be new things keep on coming, ask simple question such as, is it relavant to my field. If not forget it.

Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well

Most people like to believe something is or is not true. They believe the theory enough to go ahead; they doubt it enough to notice the errors and faults so they can step forward and create the new replacement theory. If you believe too much you'll never notice the flaws; if you doubt too much you won't get started. It requires a lovely balance. But most great scientists are well aware of why their theories are true and they are also well aware of some slight misfits which don't quite fit and they don't forget it. Darwin writes in his autobiography that he found it necessary to write down every piece of evidence which appeared to contradict his beliefs because otherwise they would disappear from his mind. When you find apparent flaws you've got to be sensitive and keep track of those things, and keep an eye out for how they can be explained or how the theory can be changed to fit them. Those are often the great contributions. Great contributions are rarely done by adding another decimal place. It comes down to an emotional commitment. Most great scientists are completely committed to their problem. Those who don't become committed seldom produce outstanding, first-class work.

Not enough emotional committment

Everybody who has studied creativity is driven finally to saying, creativity comes out of your subconscious. Somehow, suddenly, there it is. It just appears. Well, we know very little about the subconscious; but one thing you are pretty well aware of is that your dreams also come out of your subconscious. And you're aware your dreams are, to a fair extent, a reworking of the experiences of the day. If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there's the answer. For those who don't get committed to their current problem, the subconscious goofs off on other things and doesn't produce the big result. So the way to manage yourself is that when you have a real important problem you don't let anything else get the center of your attention - you keep your thoughts on the problem. Keep your subconscious starved so it has to work on your problem, so you can sleep peacefully and get the answer in the morning, free.

Most great scientists know many important problems

They have something between 10 and 20 important problems for which they are looking for an attack. And when they see a new idea come up, one hears them say Well that bears on this problem. They drop all the other things and get after it. Now I can tell you a horror story that was told to me but I can't vouch for the truth of it. I was sitting in an airport talking to a friend of mine from Los Alamos about how it was lucky that the fission experiment occurred over in Europe when it did because that got us working on the atomic bomb here in the US. He said No; at Berkeley we had gathered a bunch of data; we didn't get around to reducing it because we were building some more equipment, but if we had reduced that data we would have found fission. They had it in their hands and they didn't pursue it. They came in second!

No one in Bell Labs worked on these 3 outstanding problems in physics

  1. Time Travel
  2. Teleportation
  3. Anit-Gravity

They are not important problems because we do not have an attack. It's not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack. That is what makes a problem important. When I say that most scientists don't work on important problems, I mean it in that sense. The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important and he also doesn't believe that they will lead to important problems.


There are three things you have to do in selling.

  1. You have to learn to write clearly and well so that people will read it
  2. You must learn to give reasonably formal talks
  3. and you also must learn to give informal talks.

We had a lot of so-called back room scientists. In a conference, they would keep quiet. Three weeks later after a decision was made they filed a report saying why you should do so and so. Well, it was too late. They would not stand up right in the middle of a hot conference, in the middle of activity, and say, We should do this for these reasons. You need to master that form of communication as well as prepared speeches.

Demonstrate Greatness to get Great Work

When you hire a plumber to fix plumbing, you expect him to be already trained, you expect him to be able.

You don't give a person big chance to do something great unless he had already demonstrated greatness. First you have to demonstrate then you will get the opportunities, its not other way around.

Question: Would you compare research and management?

Hamming: If you want to be a great researcher, you won't make it being president of the company. If you want to be president of the company, that's another thing. I'm not against being president of the company. I just don't want to be. I think Ian Ross does a good job as President of Bell Labs. I'm not against it; but you have to be clear on what you want. Furthermore, when you're young, you may have picked wanting to be a great scientist, but as you live longer, you may change your mind. For instance, I went to my boss, Bode, one day and said, Why did you ever become department head? Why didn't you just be a good scientist? He said, Hamming, I had a vision of what mathematics should be in Bell Laboratories. And I saw if that vision was going to be realized, I had to make it happen; I had to be department head. When your vision of what you want to do is what you can do single-handedly, then you should pursue it. The day your vision, what you think needs to be done, is bigger than what you can do single-handedly, then you have to move toward management. And the bigger the vision is, the farther in management you have to go. If you have a vision of what the whole laboratory should be, or the whole Bell System, you have to get there to make it happen. You can't make it happen from the bottom very easily. It depends upon what goals and what desires you have. And as they change in life, you have to be prepared to change. I chose to avoid management because I preferred to do what I could do single-handedly. But that's the choice that I made, and it is biased. Each person is entitled to their choice. Keep an open mind. But when you do choose a path, for heaven's sake be aware of what you have done and the choice you have made. Don't try to do both sides.

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