Vincent Ramdhanie
Software Developer

You and Your Research by Richard Hamming

Richard Hamming, the famous mathematician from Bell Labs once gave an interesting talk at a seminar. There are several specific bits of information that can be extracted from that talk.

Published 8 December 2023
You and Your Research by Richard Hamming

A co-worker introduced this talk to me today. You can read the full transcript here.

In this talk Richard Hamming discusses the qualities and characteristics of the individuals that do great scientific work. He suggests that the same would be true for other fields as well. Many of these ideas have been stated in one way or another by different people but this talk summarizes them very well.

The first concept that he tackles is the idea of luck. There is a general perception that great science is done by luck. He proposes that great science is done by years of hard work that prepares an individual to recognize the important things when they do arise. He quotes Pasteur who said “Luck favours the prepared mind”. He points out that many great scientists started thinking about the problems at a very early age.

Hamming quotes a couple examples of people that he worked with at Bell Labs that did not particularly stand out when he first met them but with consistent hard work they achieved great things.

Courage is another characteristic that he discussed. That is, having the courage to believ that you can do big things. When obstacles stand in your way, have the courage to work until you overcome the obstacles.

He debunks the concept that good work is only done by the young. In fact, he suggests that early success makes it difficult for most people to follow. After winning a Nobel prize, for instance, most people stop working on the small stuff. And its the small stuff that leads to great discoveries. He likens the small stuff to planting acorns which one day grow to giant oak trees. When you stop planting acorns you stop getting oak trees.

The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in my opinion, has ruined more good scientists than any institution has created, judged by what they did before they came and judged by what they did after. Not that they weren’t good afterwards, but they were superb before they got there and were only good afterwards.
- Richard Hamming

Next, he turns his attention to the idea of “the ideal working conditions” and gave several examples where better work was done when the conditions were not ideal. Sometimes, the conditions that we want are not the best conditions for getting work done.

Drive, all great scientists have tremendous drive. They work hard. They work long hours.

One of the traits mentioned by Hamming really rang true for me. That is, ambiguity. Great scientists can tolerate ambiguity. That is, they do not need the whole picture and all the answers to get moving. They get enoughinfo for a theory to make sense then they move forward. Too often we wait for all the information before we make decisions and start moving.

”Are you working on important problems?” If not, why not? A problem is important if you have an attack. For example, in the tech field, artificial general intelligence (agi) is an important problem. In fact, it might be the most imprtant problem that we work on right now. However, if we do not have an attack for the problem then there is nothing to work on and you may be better off working on another problem.

The open door policy: the scientist that work with open doors get interrupted more often but remain in the know better and ultimately make more relevant advances.

Hamming then spent some time discussing personality traits that worked or didn’t work for scientists. He addresses the issue of selling your work and educating your bosses. One that particularly stood out was asserting your ego at the expense of yuour career. He doesn’t suggest that you conform to social norms, but the appearance of conformity can get you far. In other words, choose your battles carefully.