Richard Hamming - You And Your Research - Summary

Click to see the full transcript. This is my summary, quoting and paraphrasing the content.

This talk centered on Hamming’s observations and research on the question: why do so few scientists make significant contributions and so many are forgotten in the long run?

The talk is about what he has learned in terms of the properties of the individual scientists, their abilities, traits, working habits, attitudes, and philosophy.

Introduction of Dr. Richard W. Hamming

Richard is one of the all time greats in the mathematics and computer science arenas.

For example, he has written seven books which tell of various areas of mathematics, computers, coding and information theory.

The Talk: “You and Your Research” by Dr. Richard W. Hamming

The talk is about how you individually do your research. I’m talking about great research, Nobel-Prize type of work.

Pasteur said “Luck favors the prepared mind”. The particular thing you do is luck, but that you do something is not.

Newton said “If others would think as hard as I did, then they would get similar results”.

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.

Edison said “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration”. Just hard work is not enough - it must be applied sensibly.

Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well. 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.

Creativity comes out of your subconscious. 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.

If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work. It’s not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack.

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 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.

Newton said “If I have seen further than others, it is because I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants”.

You should do your job in such a fashion that others can build on top of it.

It is not sufficient to do a job, you have to sell 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”.

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 struggle to make something of yourself seems to be worthwhile in itself.

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Updated on 2020 Oct 30.

DISCLAIMER: This is not professional advice. The ideas and opinions presented here are my own, not necessarily those of my employer.