Richard Hamming quotes

date: 2017-09-17

From “You and Your Research”.

In the same way, when using the machine up in the attic in the early days, I was solving one problem after another after another; a fair number were successful and there were a few failures. I went home one Friday after finishing a problem, and curiously enough I wasn’t happy; I was depressed. I could see life being a long sequence of one problem after another after another. After quite a while of thinking I decided, “No, I should be in the mass production of a variable product. I should be concerned with all of next year’s problems, not just the one in front of my face.” By changing the question I still got the same kind of results or better, but I changed things and did important work. I attacked the major problem - How do I conquer machines and do all of next year’s problems when I don’t know what they are going to be? How do I prepare for it? How do I do this one so I’ll be on top of it? How do I obey Newton’s rule? He said, “If I have seen further than others, it is because I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants.” These days we stand on each other’s feet!

You should do your job in such a fashion that others can build on top of it, so they will indeed say, “Yes, I’ve stood on so and so’s shoulders and I saw further.” The essence of science is cumulative. By changing a problem slightly you can often do great work rather than merely good work. Instead of attacking isolated problems, I made the resolution that I would never again solve an isolated problem except as characteristic of a class.

Reminds me of Bacon.

To end this part, I’ll remind you, “It is a poor workman who blames his tools - the good man gets on with the job, given what he’s got, and gets the best answer he can.” And I suggest that by altering the problem, by looking at the thing differently, you can make a great deal of difference in your final productivity because you can either do it in such a fashion that people can indeed build on what you’ve done, or you can do it in such a fashion that the next person has to essentially duplicate again what you’ve done. It isn’t just a matter of the job, it’s the way you write the report, the way you write the paper, the whole attitude. It’s just as easy to do a broad, general job as one very special case. And it’s much more satisfying and rewarding!

Like tithing.

Friday afternoons for years - great thoughts only - means that I committed 10% of my time trying to understand the bigger problems in the field, i.e. what was and what was not important. I found in the early days I had believed “this” and yet had spent all week marching in “that” direction. It was kind of foolish.

I am an egotistical person; there is no doubt about it. I knew that most people who took a sabbatical to write a book, didn’t finish it on time. So before I left, I told all my friends that when I come back, that book was going to be done! Yes, I would have it done - I’d have been ashamed to come back without it! I used my ego to make myself behave the way I wanted to. I bragged about something so I’d have to perform. I found out many times, like a cornered rat in a real trap, I was surprisingly capable. I have found that it paid to say, “Oh yes, I’ll get the answer for you Tuesday,” not having any idea how to do it. By Sunday night I was really hard thinking on how I was going to deliver by Tuesday. I often put my pride on the line and sometimes I failed, but as I said, like a cornered rat I’m surprised how often I did a good job. I think you need to learn to use yourself. I think you need to know how to convert a situation from one view to another which would increase the chance of success.

There are so many alibis. Why weren’t you first? Why didn’t you do it right? Don’t try an alibi. Don’t try and kid yourself. You can tell other people all the alibis you want. I don’t mind. But to yourself try to be honest.

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!

Question: The remarks about having courage, no one could argue with; but those of us who have gray hairs or who are well established don’t have to worry too much. But what I sense among the young people these days is a real concern over the risk taking in a highly competitive environment. Do you have any words of wisdom on this?

Hamming: I’ll quote Ed David more. Ed David was concerned about the general loss of nerve in our society. It does seem to me that we’ve gone through various periods. Coming out of the war, coming out of Los Alamos where we built the bomb, coming out of building the radars and so on, there came into the mathematics department, and the research area, a group of people with a lot of guts. They’ve just seen things done; they’ve just won a war which was fantastic. We had reasons for having courage and therefore we did a great deal. I can’t arrange that situation to do it again. I cannot blame the present generation for not having it, but I agree with what you say; I just cannot attach blame to it. It doesn’t seem to me they have the desire for greatness; they lack the courage to do it. But we had, because we were in a favorable circumstance to have it; we just came through a tremendously successful war. In the war we were looking very, very bad for a long while; it was a very desperate struggle as you well know. And our success, I think, gave us courage and self confidence; that’s why you see, beginning in the late forties through the fifties, a tremendous productivity at the labs which was stimulated from the earlier times. Because many of us were earlier forced to learn other things - we were forced to learn the things we didn’t want to learn, we were forced to have an open door - and then we could exploit those things we learned. It is true, and I can’t do anything about it; I cannot blame the present generation either. It’s just a fact.

Question: How much effort should go into library work?

Hamming: It depends upon the field. I will say this about it. There was a fellow at Bell Labs, a very, very, smart guy. He was always in the library; he read everything. If you wanted references, you went to him and he gave you all kinds of references. But in the middle of forming these theories, I formed a proposition: there would be no effect named after him in the long run. He is now retired from Bell Labs and is an Adjunct Professor. He was very valuable; I’m not questioning that. He wrote some very good Physical Review articles; but there’s no effect named after him because he read too much. If you read all the time what other people have done you will think the way they thought. If you want to think new thoughts that are different, then do what a lot of creative people do - get the problem reasonably clear and then refuse to look at any answers until you’ve thought the problem through carefully how you would do it, how you could slightly change the problem to be the correct one. So yes, you need to keep up. You need to keep up more to find out what the problems are than to read to find the solutions. The reading is necessary to know what is going on and what is possible. But reading to get the solutions does not seem to be the way to do great research. So I’ll give you two answers. You read; but it is not the amount, it is the way you read that counts.

Now, let me go on. I had twitted John frequently about true greatness. I said true greatness is when your name is like ampere, watt, and fourier - when it’s spelled with a lower case letter. That’s how the hamming window came about.

In this day of practically infinite knowledge, we need orientation to find our way. Let me tell you what infinite knowledge is. Since from the time of Newton to now, we have come close to doubling knowledge every 17 years, more or less. And we cope with that, essentially, by specialization. In the next 340 years at that rate, there will be 20 doublings, i.e. a million, and there will be a million fields of specialty for every one field now. It isn’t going to happen. The present growth of knowledge will choke itself off until we get different tools. I believe that books which try to digest, coordinate, get rid of the duplication, get rid of the less fruitful methods and present the underlying ideas clearly of what we know now, will be the things the future generations will value.