Richard Hamming’s famous talk titled “You and Your Research” is widely available on the web (click here for pdf version and html version). It’s also quite long. Below are some highlights from the talk. If you are serious about become a great scholar, check out the ideas below. Note that Hamming was a scientist, so he is addressing fellow scientists. But his remarks apply to anyone with high intellectual aspirations.

=====================

[From editor’s introduction:] 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?” From his more than forty years of experience, thirty of which were at Bell Laboratories, he has made a number of direct observations, asked very pointed questions of scientists about what, how, and why they did things, studied the lives of great scientists and great contributions, and has done introspection and studied theories of creativity. 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.

—–

The title of my talk is, “You and Your Research.” It is not about managing research, it is about how you individually do your research. I could give a talk on the other subject – but it’s not, it’s about you. I’m not talking about ordinary run-of-the-mill research; I’m talking about great research. And for the sake of describing great research I’ll occasionally say Nobel-Prize type of work. It doesn’t have to gain the Nobel Prize, but I mean those kinds of things which we perceive are significant things. Relativity, if you want, Shannon’s information theory, any number of outstanding theories — that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.

Now, how did I come to do this study? At Los Alamos I was brought in to run the computing machines which other people had got going, so those scientists and physicists could get back to business. I saw I was a stooge. I saw that although physically I was the same, they were different. And to put the thing bluntly, I was envious. I wanted to know why they were so different from me. I saw Feynman up close. I saw Fermi and Teller. I saw Oppenheimer. I saw Hans Bethe: he was my boss. I saw quite a few very capable people. I became very interested in the difference between those who do and those who might have done.

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?

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.”

One of the characteristics you see, and many people have it including great scientists, is that usually when they were young they had independent thoughts and had the courage to pursue them. For example, Einstein, somewhere around 12 or 14, asked himself the question, “What would a light wave look like if I went with the velocity of light to look at it?” Now he knew that electromagnetic theory says you cannot have a stationary local maximum. But if he moved along with the velocity of light, he would see a local maximum. He could see a contradiction at the age of 12, 14, or somewhere around there, that everything was not right and that the velocity of light had something peculiar.

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. You have only to think of his major theorem. He wants to create a method of coding, but he doesn’t know what to do so he makes a random code. Then he is stuck. And then he asks the impossible question, “What would the average random code do?” He then proves that the average code is arbitrarily good, and that therefore there must be at least one good code. Who but a man of infinite courage could have dared to think those thoughts? That is the characteristic of great scientists; they have courage. They will go forward under incredible circumstances; they think and continue to think.

Age is another factor which the physicists particularly worry about. They always are saying that you have got to do it when you are young or you will never do it. Einstein did things very early, and all the quantum mechanic fellows were disgustingly young when they did their best work. Most mathematicians, theoretical physicists, and astrophysicists do what we consider their best work when they are young. It is not that they don’t do good work in their old age but what we value most is often what they did early. On the other hand, in music, politics and literature, often what we consider their best work was done late. I don’t know how whatever field you are in fits this scale, but age has some effect.

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. So that is another reason why you find that when you get early recognition it seems to sterilize you. In fact I will give you my favorite quotation of many years. 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.

This brings up the subject, out of order perhaps, of working conditions. What most people think are the best working conditions, are not. Very clearly they are not because people are often most productive when working conditions are bad. One of the better times of the Cambridge Physical Laboratories was when they had practically shacks – they did some of the best physics ever.

“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.

Solid work, steadily applied, gets you surprisingly far. 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. I’ve often wondered why so many of my good friends at Bell Labs who worked as hard or harder than I did, didn’t have so much to show for it. The misapplication of effort is a very serious matter. Just hard work is not enough – it must be applied sensibly.

Most people like to believe something is or is not true. 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 … Great contributions are rarely done by adding another decimal place. It comes down to an emotional commitment. Most great scientists are completely committed to their problem. Those who don’t become committed seldom produce outstanding, first-class work.

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. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them … The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important and he also doesn’t believe that they will lead to important problems.

The great scientists, when an opportunity opens up, get after it and they pursue it. They drop all other things. They get rid of other things and they get after an idea because they had already thought the thing through. Their minds are prepared; they see the opportunity and they go after it. Now of course lots of times it doesn’t work out, but you don’t have to hit many of them to do some great science. It’s kind of easy. One of the chief tricks is to live a long time!

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.

There are three things you have to do in selling. You have to learn to write clearly and well so that people will read it, you must learn to give reasonably formal talks, and you also must learn to give informal talks. We had a lot of so-called `back room scientists.’ In a conference, they would keep quiet. Three weeks later after a decision was made they filed a report saying why you should do so and so. Well, it was too late. They would not stand up right in the middle of a hot conference, in the middle of activity, and say, “We should do this for these reasons.” You need to master that form of communication as well as prepared speeches.

I think it is very definitely worth the struggle to try and do first-class work because the truth is, the value is in the struggle more than it is in the result. The struggle to make something of yourself seems to be worthwhile in itself. The success and fame are sort of dividends, in my opinion.

I’ve told you how to do it. It is so easy, so why do so many people, with all their talents, fail? For example, my opinion, to this day, is that there are in the mathematics department at Bell Labs quite a few people far more able and far better endowed than I, but they didn’t produce as much. Some of them did produce more than I did; Shannon produced more than I did, and some others produced a lot, but I was highly productive against a lot of other fellows who were better equipped. Why is it so? What happened to them? Why do so many of the people who have great promise, fail?

Well, one of the reasons is drive and commitment. The people who do great work with less ability but who are committed to it, get more done that those who have great skill and dabble in it, who work during the day and go home and do other things and come back and work the next day. They don’t have the deep commitment that is apparently necessary for really first-class work. They turn out lots of good work, but we were talking, remember, about first-class work. There is a difference. Good people, very talented people, almost always turn out good work. We’re talking about the outstanding work, the type of work that gets the Nobel Prize and gets recognition.

The second thing is, I think, the problem of personality defects. Now I’ll cite a fellow whom I met out in Irvine. He had been the head of a computing center and he was temporarily on assignment as a special assistant to the president of the university. It was obvious he had a job with a great future … And, he never went any further. He had his personality defect of wanting total control and was not willing to recognize that you need the support of the system.

You find this happening again and again; good scientists will fight the system rather than learn to work with the system and take advantage of all the system has to offer. It has a lot, if you learn how to use it. It takes patience, but you can learn how to use the system pretty well, and you can learn how to get around it. After all, if you want a decision `No’, you just go to your boss and get a `No’ easy. If you want to do something, don’t ask, do it. Present him with an accomplished fact. Don’t give him a chance to tell you `No’. But if you want a `No’, it’s easy to get a `No’.

Another personality defect is ego assertion and I’ll speak in this case of my own experience. I came from Los Alamos and in the early days I was using a machine in New York at 590 Madison Avenue where we merely rented time. I was still dressing in western clothes, big slash pockets, a bolo and all those things. I vaguely noticed that I was not getting as good service as other people. So I set out to measure. You came in and you waited for your turn; I felt I was not getting a fair deal. I said to myself, “Why? No Vice President at IBM said, `Give Hamming a bad time’. It is the secretaries at the bottom who are doing this. When a slot appears, they’ll rush to find someone to slip in, but they go out and find somebody else. Now, why? I haven’t mistreated them.” Answer, I wasn’t dressing the way they felt somebody in that situation should. It came down to just that – I wasn’t dressing properly. I had to make the decision – was I going to assert my ego and dress the way I wanted to and have it steadily drain my effort from my professional life, or was I going to appear to conform better? I decided I would make an effort to appear to conform properly. The moment I did, I got much better service. And now, as an old colorful character, I get better service than other people.

You should dress according to the expectations of the audience spoken to. If I am going to give an address at the MIT computer center, I dress with a bolo and an old corduroy jacket or something else. 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. They have got to be able to do this, that, or the other thing, and they pay a steady price.

John Tukey almost always dressed very casually. He would go into an important office and it would take a long time before the other fellow realized that this is a first-class man and he had better listen. For a long time John has had to overcome this kind of hostility. It’s wasted effort! I didn’t say you should conform; I said “The appearance of conforming gets you a long way.” If you chose to assert your ego in any number of ways, “I am going to do it my way,” you pay a small steady price throughout the whole of your professional career. And this, over a whole lifetime, adds up to an enormous amount of needless trouble.

Many a second-rate fellow gets caught up in some little twitting of the system, and carries it through to warfare. He expends his energy in a foolish project. Now you are going to tell me that somebody has to change the system. I agree; somebody’s has to. Which do you want to be? The person who changes the system or the person who does first-class science? Which person is it that you want to be? Be clear, when you fight the system and struggle with it, what you are doing, how far to go out of amusement, and how much to waste your effort fighting the system. My advice is to let somebody else do it and you get on with becoming a first-class scientist. Very few of you have the ability to both reform the system and become a first-class scientist.

On the other hand, we can’t always give in. There are times when a certain amount of rebellion is sensible. I have observed almost all scientists enjoy a certain amount of twitting the system for the sheer love of it. What it comes down to basically is that you cannot be original in one area without having originality in others. Originality is being different. You can’t be an original scientist without having some other original characteristics. But many a scientist has let his quirks in other places make him pay a far higher price than is necessary for the ego satisfaction he or she gets. I’m not against all ego assertion; I’m against some.

Another fault is anger. Often a scientist becomes angry, and this is no way to handle things. Amusement, yes, anger, no. Anger is misdirected. You should follow and cooperate rather than struggle against the system all the time.

In summary, I claim that some of the reasons why so many people who have greatness within their grasp don’t succeed are: they don’t work on important problems, they don’t become emotionally involved, they don’t try and change what is difficult to some other situation which is easily done but is still important, and they keep giving themselves alibis why they don’t. They keep saying that it is a matter of luck. I’ve told you how easy it is; furthermore I’ve told you how to reform. Therefore, go forth and become great scientists!

(End of the formal part of the talk.)

DISCUSSION – QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

You have to change. You get tired after a while; you use up your originality in one field. You need to get something nearby. I’m not saying that you shift from music to theoretical physics to English literature; I mean within your field you should shift areas so that you don’t go stale. You couldn’t get away with forcing a change every seven years, but if you could, I would require a condition for doing research, being that you will change your field of research every seven years with a reasonable definition of what it means, or at the end of 10 years, management has the right to compel you to change. I would insist on a change because I’m serious. What happens to the old fellows is that they get a technique going; they keep on using it. They were marching in that direction which was right then, but the world changes. There’s the new direction; but the old fellows are still marching in their former direction.

You need to get into a new field to get new viewpoints, and before you use up all the old ones. You can do something about this, but it takes effort and energy. It takes courage to say, “Yes, I will give up my great reputation.” For example, when error correcting codes were well launched, having these theories, I said, “Hamming, you are going to quit reading papers in the field; you are going to ignore it completely; you are going to try and do something else other than coast on that.” I deliberately refused to go on in that field. I wouldn’t even read papers to try to force myself to have a chance to do something else. I managed myself, which is what I’m preaching in this whole talk. Knowing many of my own faults, I manage myself. I have a lot of faults, so I’ve got a lot of problems, i.e. a lot of possibilities of management.

It’s very valuable to have first-class people around. I sought out the best people. The moment that physics table lost the best people, I left. The moment I saw that the same was true of the chemistry table, I left. I tried to go with people who had great ability so I could learn from them and who would expect great results out of me. By deliberately managing myself, I think I did much better than laissez faire.