I’ve read Richard Hamming’s essay You and Your Research a couple times and took it to heart. But I didn’t know until this morning that there is a video of Hamming giving his talk. Hat tip to Nuit Blanche.
As Hamming says in his introduction, the talk applies to careers in general, not just jobs in research.
6 thoughts on “You and your research”
“You and Your Research” is the last chapter in Hamming’s book, The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (out of print, but Kindle is available). It’s one of the greatest and most inspiring books I’ve ever read. Each chapter is nominally about some technical topic (eg, “Digital Filters”), but the topic is just a scaffolding for Hamming to ramble about achingly-insightful personal anecdotes.
The book is derived from Hamming’s lecture series of the same name, also available on YouTube.
Thank you for this John.
Really great stuff here. Gotta be careful about all that stuff about “restructure your life to work work work on nothing but career-related topics” though. As humans and citizens we need to have time to enrich our home life and our minds and pay attention to the world and humans and ideas around us. Repurposing yourself for huge amounts of “work” is pretty much just what the business engineers want you to do ( http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/2962/ ). Of course it’s a different story if you’re someone like Paul Erdos and your work is both your passion and contributes permanently to humankind’s legacy.
Hi John, I also have gotten a lot of insight from Richard Hamming’s ideas and have often mentioned them in talks on doing good research. I would like to respond to the comment on work-life balance from Joe T. I completely agree. However, I have noticed that some (many in my opinion) people that are very successful in their field have not achieved much balance. They often dedicate their lives and energy to pursuit of their vision or the current problem, at the expense of other matters (e.g., family, financial reward, and health). See for example the stories of Tesla, Ramanujan, and (as Joe T. mentions) Erdos. I think Hamming was simply saying that you should choose the life you want. If you want to do significant scientific research, then in my opinion (and Hamming’s I think) it means sacrifice and focus, sometimes at the expense of everything else. I don’t think many people have gotten there totally in balance. To those that have, my hat is off. I think Joe T. is also saying that you should think about it and live the type of life you would want. Hamming suggests this should be a deliberate decision. I think there is a myth that suggests you can have it all. Not many can do that in my experience. As you get older, one starts to think about decisions made when young; like in the Moody Blues song, Late Lament.
One more thing. I think age is over-rated. There are several great examples of people that have gotten better with age. (1) In terms of pages, Euler was the most prolific mathematician in history. His career lasted more than 50 years and he became more productive after becoming blind at the age of almost 50. (2) Gauss likewise had a career lasting more than 50 years and produced a paper a week when more than 50 years of age. (3) Ya. B. Zeldovich did important scientific research in many areas of physics for more than 50 years. One of his greatest contributions (known as the Zeldovich-Sunyeav effect) was published at age 55. I think Hamming identifies the problem well. People become scientifically unproductive for a variety of reasons. (a) they become famous from big discoveries or developments and are distracted by the fame and participation in less productive activities. (b) they are promoted within their organization and become disengaged from scientific research. (c) they pursue more ambitious but intractable problems (e.g., Einstein). Scientists who avoid these traps seem to be quite successful in old age. I don’t think it is age that is the issue. It is choice of problems and avoiding distractions that is important.