Notes on “You & Your Research”, Richard Hamming

These are my notes from a lecture Richard Hamming gave at the Naval Postgraduate School in June 1995. He speaks from his own experience as a researcher, but he notes that the ideas broadly applicable to any career. I think there are a lot of nuggets that apply to investing. You can watch the talk here.

“At Los Alamos [in his late 20s, early 30s], I became aware that I was a janitor of science: a person who keeps the thing going, but whose opinion does not matter a great deal. They could trust me to do the simple things, but I was not really involved in the major decisions.”

  • “What’s the difference between the really capable scientists and myself?”

The key is the Matthew Effect, named after St. Matthew.

  • “For unto everyone that has shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that has not shall be taken away even that which he has.”

When you become famous, it’s easier to stay famous.

  • You get access to resources, information, & people that others might not get.
  • “It’s necessary to do something outstanding, otherwise what you do is sort of taken away from you.”
    • “I suggest to you a life of doing something significant—by your definition of significant—is worthwhile.”

“My purpose is to stick a knife in your back and give it a good twist and make you say at the back end, ‘Well, if Hamming could do it, why can’t I?’”

First, Hamming addresses some psychological objections:

Claim: “Fame is a matter of luck.”

  • Rebuttal: “Luck favors the prepared mind.”
    • “Yes, there is an element of luck. No, there isn’t.”
  • For example, Hamming knew Feynman would win a Nobel prize. “He was one of those people—you could see the man had energy and ability, and he was going to do something. It was the nature of him to be something.”
  • There are lots of ways luck can hit you.
  • At Bell Labs, Claude Shannon, who shared an attic with Hamming & one other roommate, created information theory, while Hamming created coding theory.
    • There were many talented people around. “Why did we do it?”
    • Shannon, in his master’s thesis, had observed that Boolean algebra was needed for switching circuits: he had already laid the groundwork for his success.
  • As another example, Einstein is famous for having written 5 great papers in one year.
  • “It isn’t luck. It is, too.”
    • “You prepare yourself by the way you lead your life from day to day. You prepare yourself for success, or you don’t. And when the lightning strikes, you’re either ready, or you’re not—it either misses you, or it hits you.”
    • If Shannon had not created information theory, he would have done other significant things.

Isaac Newton observed that if other people thought as hard as he did, they would get the same results.

  • Edison: “Genius is 99% inspiration & 1% inspiration.”
  • “I’ll tell you the same thing. To a great extent, it is constant hard work that does it. Nothing more & nothing else. The very able people work very hard all the time.
    • “At Los Alamos on Sundays when we goofed off a little bit, when they went out hiking in the mountains, they still talked shop. They were at the problem all the time.

Claim: you need a High IQ.

  • Rebuttal: It’s not always a matter of measurable intelligence or of showing promise at a young age.
    • Newton & Einstein are two notable examples of this.
  • Personal example: Bill Pfann wanted to experiment with zone melting (used to remove impurities) & approached Hamming at Bell Labs.
    • They got some partial answers through a theoretical approach, but they needed computing power.
      • When Hamming approached Pfann’s department, they didn’t think much of him.
    • Hamming viewed this as a chance to contribute to what could be a really good idea.
    • “It will often be true that your local people cannot see that you’re doing great work.”
      • Hamming taught him how to use the computer, made machine time available to him.
      • Pfann’s research ended up winning several prizes, while his laboratory was made a national treasure.
    • “Also along the way, from being inarticulate, knowing little mathematics, & lacking confidence, he became a man who spoke clearly & well and gained confidence.
      • “He had lacked confidence when he was young, and that success was his one great idea, but it was what Bell Labs needed.”

Hamming’s elements of success:

To succeed, you need confidence.

  • “The most important thing with great people is they believe they can do great work.”
    • “If you don’t think you do great work, it’s not likely that you’re ever going to do it. It’s that simple.”
    • “Now, you can be too overconfident, but you should have a fair amount of confidence.”
  • Claude Shannon had to exhibit “almost infinite courage” in proving that good error-correcting codes existed using a probabilistic method.
  • “There was a year or so when Shannon came in around 10 a.m., played chess ‘til about 2 p.m. and went home. At the end of the year, the company gave him a salary raise. All you could see him doing was playing chess, but at home he was creating information theory.”
    • When you’re attacked in chess, you can either defend yourself or attack back.
      • Shannon would always attack, and the game would get more & more complex.
      • Finally, at some point, he would grab his queen, advance it, and say, “I ain’t scared of nothing.” At that point, the whole game would collapse, and Shannon would either win or lose. Hamming copied this style.
  • When you’re stuck, it can be helpful to say, “I ain’t scared of nothing.” Go ahead and see what happens.
  • Hamming was in a math department that would go to lunch together.
    • They would play games, fly kites, etc.
  • Hamming didn’t want to waste time, so he went to the physics table instead, where he was welcomed. In this way, he ended up hanging out with Nobel prize winners & other talented scientists.
    • Hamming “learned a lot of tricks” from them.
  • Eventually, all of them got promoted or left.
    • “What was left was the dregs. Hardly worth eating lunch with.”
  • Hamming then joined the chemistry table.
    • He was disappointed with the chemists. “If what you’re working on is not important, and it’s not likely to lead to important things, why are you working on it?”
      • “After that, I ate with the engineers.”
    • Months later, a chemist thanked Hamming for his remark, saying that it helped him to clarify his own thinking.
      • Shortly thereafter, this man was made head of the department, and later, became a member of the National Academy of Engineering.
      • “I have never heard anything about any other person at that chemistry table. Not one.”
      • The person who heard the message succeeded—the others did not.
  • “If you don’t work on important problems, you are not going to do important things, except by the dumbest of dumb luck.”
    • However, Nobel Prize winners who decide to then only work on important things end up accomplishing nothing.
      • “You have to plant little acorns which grow into mighty oak trees—but you have to plant the acorns that will grow.”
  • “You have to work on problems that can become important and matter—that have a future.”
    • Another thing that ruins Nobel Prize winners is committees and other frivolous time constraints. 

But, overconfidence is a disaster.

  • Strong-willed vs. stubborn.
    • It’s a fine line: “I’ve seen a lot of people abandon a good idea too soon and a lot of others cling to a good idea too long.” They’re both difficult problems.

 You should desire to do excellent work.

  • “It’s not true that anything worth doing at all is worth doing well—there are [mundane] things you might as well get rid of.”
    • But in general, you should try for excellence. “That will give you some unity.”
  • A drunken sailor staggers around and eventually gets a distance of sqrt(n). But if there’s a pretty girl over there, he moves a distance proportional to n.
    • “When you have a vision, you will go a long way. Without a vision of what you’re going to do & where you’re going to be, you’re not going to get very far.”
      • “Excellence is one of the best tracks you can use.” 

Exchange information & be receptive to new ideas.

  • “Those who work with their doors shut may be working just as hard 10 years later, but they don’t know what to work on. Those who had the door open may very well know what’s important.”
    • “I cannot prove to you whether the open door causes the open mind, or vice versa… I can only establish the correlation, and it was quite spectacular.”
    • “The guys with their doors closed… always seemed to work on slightly the wrong problem.”
      • Example: the Institute of Advanced Study, which gives noted academics everything they might need. Most of them continue working on the problem that made them famous, adding little value.
    • Keep the door open on life.

The conditions you want for success seldom exist, but you can change the conditions you have to create success.

Invert the problem.

  • Hamming & others programmed the IBM 701 computer in absolute binary.
    • A bunch of these were at West Coast airframe companies, with others scattered throughout the US.
      • The West Coast companies would hire “an acre of programming girls” to do cutting-edge development. (“Mainly, it was programming girls in those days.”)
    • “It was clear to me that Bell Labs would never give me an acre of girls.”
      • Hamming wanted to work on the bleeding edge, so he considered working on the West Coast.
      • However, Bell Labs had a high density of good people, while the airframe companies had a few, scattered widely.
      • “I’m trying to learn how to be great, so I’m studying great people. Bell Labs is the place to study, but the airframe companies are the place to get the tools.”
    • One day, he turned the problem around. “Why don’t you make the machine do the programming?”
      • What appeared to be a defect turned into an asset—and a great success.

Recognize the underlying, real problem & solve for its solution.

  • When solving a complex trajectory equation for the Navy, Hamming was using a digital computer, rather than an analog one.
    • The analog machine was not accurate enough.
    • Hamming was using a computation method that was “pretty crummy”.
    • Since it was a government contract, he would need to file a report at the end. He realized that everyone with an analog computer would try to pick flaws in what he did, since he was showing up the analog machines.
      • Hammond was really demonstrating the superiority of the digital machine, not getting the answer to this individual problem.
      • As a result, Hamming derived a better method of integrating differential equations and used it to re-solve the equation.
    • Since Hammond used a defensible computation method, he succeeded at solving this redefined problem, too.

“You should study your successes. You don’t study your failures. When your time comes, you will know how to succeed. If you study failures, you will know how to fail.”

  • Very early on, Hamming made a discovery that was very useful for transistor research.
  • He often came back to that to draw lessons from it.

Study others’ successes, too—try to figure out the elements of their success & which ones you can adapt to your personality.

  • Hamming was working with John Tukey, “who was clearly a genius” and was about the same age.
  • He went into his boss’s office, and asked, “How could anyone my age know as much as John Tukey does?”
    • “Hamming”, he said, “you’d be surprised how much you’d know if you worked as hard as he did.”
    • Hamming “slunk out of the office” and came to the realization that, though he would never have the psychic energy to match Tukey’s pace, he “could work a hell of a lot harder than I have been.”
    • He resolved to reorganize his life & cut out extraneous matter—in his case, “reading nonsense magazines & thumbing through newspapers”.
      • He deliberately arranged an appointment to book review editor to force himself to read more. Once the review was written, he waited a week, and if he decided it wasn’t good enough, he reread the book and wrote a better review.
    • He got a wide overview of computer science and only read & reviewed the books he wanted.
      • “I liked the New Yorker for the jokes… [but] I didn’t have time to do everything. I wasn’t a first-class genius—I had to work hard.”
    • “It’s not that hard to do—you just do it.”
  • “You can’t be everybody, but you have to find your own method. And studying success is a very good way of forming your own style.”

The race is not to the swiftest.

  • “The guy who works hardest doesn’t win. The person who works on the right problem at the right time in the right way is what counts, & nothing else.
  • Know “when the problem is ripe, what problem is ripe, & how to go about it.”
  • “But it’s easy—there’s a million races being run—you’ve just got to get in one of them and win.”
  • Hamming used to set aside Friday afternoons for “great thoughts”.
    • In his case, this was the effect of computing on science.
      • “What the hell am I doing with this computing machine? How is it going to affect AT&T? What should I be doing with computing? What is the nature of software?”
    • “I spent 10% of my time trying to answer the question, ‘What are the important problems of my field?’”
    • Mulling over this on Fridays also allows some of it to linger on into Saturday & Sunday.
  • Carve out a regular time to stop & think: “What are the important things? What is going on? What is the nature of what you are doing? What are the characteristics of the job? What are the fundamentals behind it?”
    • “No one knows what the fundamentals will be tomorrow, but you can try to ask, ‘what are the things on which other things seem to depend that will be true in the future?’”
  • All kinds of new fields come up endlessly.
    • You have to get some grip on them, although you can’t learn them all.

Great people have tolerance of ambiguity.

  • Great scientists both believe & disbelieve, while most people opt for one or the other.
    • “They believe their theory is true enough to continue working—because if you don’t believe your theory is true, you won’t—, but they disbelieve enough to notice what’s wrong and make the big change to the new theory.”
      • “If you believe the theory is right, you won’t make the big step forward: you’ll merely elaborate and extend the old theory, and that won’t make you a great scientist—it’ll make you just a good one.”
    • “Greatness consists of seeing what other people have missed, seizing upon the contradictions, & making the new step forward.”
    • Don’t be certain everything is correct. 

“Most great scientists have 10-20 problems in their minds, hanging around.”

  • When they get a clue how to attack one, they drop the others, rush at that problem, & finish it off first.
  • A warning about important problems: the importance is not the consequences.
    • “All the time I was at Bell Labs, no one worked on the three outstanding problems in physics: time travel, teleportation, & antigravity.”
      • The economic impacts of these would be unbelievably large, but no one has any idea how to begin solving them.
    • “The importance of a problem, to a great extent, depends on if you’ve got a way of attacking the problem.”

“It is not what you do: it’s the way that you do it.”

  • Your style makes the difference.
  • With special relativity, Poincare and others “had it all”, but Einstein did it “the right way”, & he’s the only one who is remembered for it.
  • “When you first do something, it’s often muddled up, & one of your problems is to get it clear so that it can be communicated to other people.”
    • This may not be the way you arrived at the solution, but it is simple, straightforward, & clear.
  • You have to communicate clearly in talks, in writing, & in casual conversation, with little latency in fast-moving situations.
    • Method of learning this: when you watch someone present, evaluate them not only for content, but for efficacy.
      • Look for elements you can use.
    • Hamming learned how to tell jokes for use in afternoon talks.
      • His formula: 3, one at the beginning, one in the middle to keep the audience awake, & one at the end to make the point memorable.

“It’s a poor workman who blames his tools.”

  • Adopt the philosophy: “I will do the best I can with what I’ve got.”

Change is a necessary condition for progress. (It’s not sufficient, though.)

  • Most people & most institutions resent change.
    • You have to welcome it.
  • “You’ll never find out if you stay in the same damn rut.”

“Put hooks on your ideas.”

  • Turn a piece of information around in your head until it connects to other pieces.

The onus is on you to demonstrate greatness, and then you will get the opportunities. It’s not the other way around.”

  • “I didn’t have the freedom to work [on what I wanted] when I began.”
  • “I had to do more or less what was expected.”
  • “When you hire a plumber to fix the plumbing, you expect him to be already trained, to be able. You don’t give a person a big, lovely chance to do something great when they’ve not already demonstrated greatness.”

Closing remarks:

“Is effort to be a great person worth it? I will claim yes.”

  • “I’ve talked to various people. People who tried to succeed & didn’t, I was afraid to ask. But those who did succeed & were famous, I asked them, ‘Was the struggle worth it?’ They said, ‘Yes, It’s better than wine, women, & song put together.’”
    • (“I didn’t ask any women—they might have said, ‘Better than wine, men, & song…’ I don’t know.”)
  • “They all thought that doing something really first-class & knowing you’ve done it is better than anything else they could think of.”
    • “I can’t give you the report of the guys who didn’t do it. As I said, I was afraid to ask them. I didn’t want to embarrass them.”

“You’ve got to work on the right problem, at the right time, in the right way—otherwise, you’re doomed.”

  • “Style is everything, and it’s not communicable in words.”
    • “I cannot tell you what makes a great painting—I can only show you. I can show you success, which I’ve done in this [lecture]”

“I’m a Revivalist preacher, if you want. I’m saying, repent your idle ways and get down & be somebody worth being.”

  • “No one ever told me these things I’ve been telling you. Nobody. I had to find them for myself.”
  • “I’ve told you how to succeed. You have no excuse for not doing better than I did.”

Closing quote: “The unexamined life is not worth living”—Socrates


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