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The Wisdom of Richard Hamming   07 June 2017

Yesterday Jason Kottke posted a link to a transcript of a talk that Richard Hamming gave at Bellcore in 1986. The talk, titled You and Your Research, is an hour long summary of his philosophy on how to do Nobel-Prize level research. I’d recommend reading the entire thing but I wanted to pull out some longer passages that really resonated with me.

Be clear on your goal and how to get there

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.

Focus on the important work

Since the talk is about how to do Nobel-Prize level research he spends a lot of time talking about being sure you’re focusing on the most important questions in your field. That isn’t my goal but it got me thinking about what I could be working on that would have the biggest impact at work. Rather than being satisfied just doing day-to-day busy work, you need to spend time looking at the bigger picture and then picking the projects that will have multiplier effects:

You’ve got to work on important problems. I deny that it is all luck, but I admit there is a fair element of luck. I subscribe to Pasteur’s “Luck favors the prepared mind.” I favor heavily what I did. Friday afternoons for years - great thoughts only - means that I committed 10% of my time trying to understand the bigger problems in the field, i.e. what was and what was not important. I found in the early days I had believed ‘this’ and yet had spent all week marching in 'that’ direction. It was kind of foolish. If I really believe the action is over there, why do I march in this direction? I either had to change my goal or change what I did. So I changed something I did and I marched in the direction I thought was important. It’s that easy.

And spend the time, uninterrupted, on the task:

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.

Sell your work

Marketing and sales have a bad reputation in science and engineering but it’s still critical:

I have now come down to a topic which is very distasteful; it is not sufficient to do a job, you have to sell it. 'Selling’ to a scientist is an awkward thing to do. It’s very ugly; you shouldn’t have to do it. The world is supposed to be waiting, and when you do something great, they should rush out and welcome it. But the fact is everyone is busy with their own work. You must present it so well that they will set aside what they are doing, look at what you’ve done, read it, and come back and say, “Yes, that was good.” I suggest that when you open a journal, as you turn the pages, you ask why you read some articles and not others. You had better write your report so when it is published in the Physical Review, or wherever else you want it, as the readers are turning the pages they won’t just turn your pages but they will stop and read yours. If they don’t stop and read it, you won’t get credit.

[…]

While going to meetings I had already been studying why some papers are remembered and most are not. The technical person wants to give a highly limited technical talk. Most of the time the audience wants a broad general talk and wants much more survey and background than the speaker is willing to give. As a result, many talks are ineffective. The speaker names a topic and suddenly plunges into the details he’s solved. Few people in the audience may follow. You should paint a general picture to say why it’s important, and then slowly give a sketch of what was done. Then a larger number of people will say, “Yes, Joe has done that,” or “Mary has done that; I really see where it is; yes, Mary really gave a good talk; I understand what Mary has done.” The tendency is to give a highly restricted, safe talk; this is usually ineffective. Furthermore, many talks are filled with far too much information. So I say this idea of selling is obvious.

Balance focus and awareness of other work in the field

Try to work with smart people and keep an ear open to what they’re doing:

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.

If your goal is to get new work done, don’t spend all your time reading about what other people have done:

There was a fellow at Bell Labs, a very, very, smart guy. He was always in the library; he read everything. If you wanted references, you went to him and he gave you all kinds of references. But in the middle of forming these theories, I formed a proposition: there would be no effect named after him in the long run. He is now retired from Bell Labs and is an Adjunct Professor. He was very valuable; I’m not questioning that. He wrote some very good Physical Review articles; but there’s no effect named after him because he read too much. If you read all the time what other people have done you will think the way they thought. If you want to think new thoughts that are different, then do what a lot of creative people do - get the problem reasonably clear and then refuse to look at any answers until you’ve thought the problem through carefully how you would do it, how you could slightly change the problem to be the correct one. So yes, you need to keep up. You need to keep up more to find out what the problems are than to read to find the solutions. The reading is necessary to know what is going on and what is possible. But reading to get the solutions does not seem to be the way to do great research.

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