You and your Research (Hamming)
I just finished reading the transcript of a talk by Hamming while at Bell-Labs (1986), which includes some great advices on research and work spirit overall.
These are some extracts:
‘ … each of you has one life to live. Even if you believe in reincarnation it doesn’t do you any good from one life to the next! Why shouldn’t you do significant things in this one life, however you define significant?
I find that the major objection is that people think great science is done by luck …. And I will cite Pasteur who said, “Luck favors the prepared mind.” … The prepared mind sooner or later finds something important and does it. So yes, it is luck. 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.”
One of the characteristics of successful scientists is having courage. Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can. If you think you can’t, almost surely you are not going to.
“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.
Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well. 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.
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.
If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work. It’s perfectly obvious.
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.” ‘