Richard Hamming on research

5 minute read

* Note: this is a backdated post from something I took notes on in the past

Richard Hamming is a mathematician who worked on the Manhattan Project and also contributed foundational work for error-correcting code in computing. Most of his work is too complicated for me to understand, but I chanced upon this speech that I found interesting. Some thoughts below:

Our society frowns on people who set out to do really good work. You’re not supposed to; luck is supposed to descend on you and you do great things by chance. Well, that’s a kind of dumb thing to say. I say, why shouldn’t you set out to do something significant. You don’t have to tell other people, but shouldn’t you say to yourself, “Yes, I would like to do something significant.”

I’m not sure I fully agree here. These days everyone seems to want to be a founder and build the next billion dollar company. Have things changed?

But great work is something else than mere brains. Brains are measured in various ways. In mathematics, theoretical physics, astrophysics, typically brains correlates to a great extent with the ability to manipulate symbols. And so the typical IQ test is apt to score them fairly high. On the other hand, in other fields it is something different.

As Bezos has been quoted, there are different kinds of smart

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. Courage is one of the things that Shannon had supremely.

Shannon here referring to Claude Shannon, who will be the subject of another post and is another genius. The point here being determined to pursue a problem seems relevant

When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. This is what did Shannon in. After information theory, what do you do for an encore? The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn’t the way things go.

Takeaway seems to be don’t ignore the small problems.

Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive

Again an emphasis on determination and hard work. I personally prefer hard workers over smart people. Do note that hard work isn’t a guarantee of success though.

“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.

Compound interest on savings is well known and still underappreciated. Compound interest on learning is a similar concept, talked about by Munger here and by this site here. I’m lucky if I don’t worsen every day…

The steady application of effort with a little bit more work, intelligently applied is what does it. That’s the trouble; drive, misapplied, doesn’t get you anywhere.

Similar in concept to the speed vs velocity framework that farnam street talks about here

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. That is what makes a problem important.

The part about the problem being important seems confusing in light of the small problems comment earlier. His point about the problem being attackable is worth keeping in mind though.

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.

I see his point, though I’m reluctant to believe it. I have a personal bias to keep to my own silo when I’m working on something.

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.

And this is for scientists, hardly the stereotypical personality for a salesman! One of the best classes I took in college was a sales class by John Dozier, and I still hope to improve on my salesmanship skills. Life would be significantly easier if I was better at selling

Why do so many of the people who have great promise, fail? […] Well, one of the reasons is drive and commitment. […] The second thing is, I think, the problem of personality defects. […] will fight the system rather than learn to work with the system and take advantage of all the system has to offer. […] Another personality defect is ego assertion […] I know enough not to let my clothes, my appearance, my manners get in the way of what I care about. An enormous number of scientists feel they must assert their ego and do their thing their way. […] I didn’t say you should conform; I said ``The appearance of conforming gets you a long way.’’

Everyone has ego. It’s difficult, but try not to let in get in the way of what matters. Probably easiest for you to realise when you have an outside perspective on your situation.

To use another analogy, you know the idea called the “critical mass.” If you have enough stuff you have critical mass. There is also the idea I used to call “sound absorbers”. When you get too many sound absorbers, you give out an idea and they merely say, “Yes, yes, yes.” What you want to do is get that critical mass in action; “Yes, that reminds me of so and so,” or, “Have you thought about that or this?”

Avoid boring people.