Transcription of the Bell Communications Research Colloquium Seminar ?C
'You and Your Research' given by Richard W. Hamming at MRE on March 7, 1986.
J. F. Kaiser Bell Communications Research 435 South Street, Room 2E-354 Morristown, NJ 07980
As a seminar in the Bell Communications Research Colloquia Series, Dr. Richard W. Hamming, a Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and a former Bell Labs scientist, gave an interesting and stimulating talk, `You and Your Research' to an overflow audience of some 200 Bellcore staff members and visitors at the Morris Research and Engineering Center on March 7, 1986. 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. This paper is a transcription of that talk along with the discussions from the question and answer period.
As a seminar in the Bell Communications Research Colloquia Series, Dr. Richard W. Hamming, a Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and a retired Bell Labs scientist, gave a very interesting and stimulating talk, `You and Your Research' to an overflow audience of some 200 Bellcore staff members and visitors at the Morris Research and Engineering Center on March 7, 1986. 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. In order to make the information in the talk more widely available, the tape recording that was made of that talk was carefully transcribed. This transcription includes the discussions which followed in the question and answer period. As with any talk, the transcribed version suffers from translation as all the inflections of voice and the gestures of the speaker are lost; one must listen to the tape recording to recapture that part of the presentation. While the recording of Richard Hamming's talk was completely intelligible, that of some of the questioner's remarks were not. Where the tape recording was not intelligible I have added in parentheses my
impression of the questioner's remarks. Where there was a question and I could identify the questioner, I have checked with each to ensure the accuracy of my interpretation of their remarks.
2. INTRODUCTION OF DR. RICHARD W. HAMMING
As a speaker in the Bell Communications Research Colloquium Series, Dr. Richard W. Hamming of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, was introduced by Alan G. Chynoweth, Vice President, Applied Research, Bell Communications Research.
Introduction of Richard W. Hamming
Alan G. Chynoweth Greetings colleagues, and also to many of our former colleagues from Bell Labs who, I understand, are here to be with us today on what I regard as a particularly felicitous occasion. It gives me very great pleasure indeed to introduce to you my old friend and colleague from many many years back, Richard Hamming, or Dick Hamming as he has always been know to all of us. Dick is one of the all time greats in the mathematics and computer science arenas, as I'm sure the audience here does not need reminding. He received his early education at the Universities of Chicago and Nebraska, and got his Ph.D. at Illinois; he then joined the Los Alamos project during the war. Afterwards, in 1946, he joined Bell Labs. And that is, of course, where I met Dick - when I joined Bell Labs in their physics research organization. In those days, we were in the habit of lunching together as a physics group, and for some reason this strange fellow from mathematics was always pleased to join us. We were always happy to have him with us because he brought so many unorthodox ideas and views. Those lunches were stimulating, I can assure you. While our professional paths have not been very close over the years, nevertheless I've always recognized Dick in the halls of Bell Labs and have always had tremendous admiration for what he was doing. I think the record speaks for itself. It is too long to go through all the details, but let me point out, for example, that he has written seven books and of those seven books which tell of various areas of mathematics and computers and coding
and information theory, three are already well into their second edition. That is testimony indeed to the prolific output and the stature of Dick Hamming. I think I last met him - it must have been about ten years ago - at a rather curious little conference in Dublin, Ireland where we were both speakers. As always, he was tremendously entertaining. Just one more example of the provocative thoughts that he comes up with: I remember him saying, "There are wavelengths that people cannot see, there are sounds that people cannot hear, and maybe computers have thoughts that people cannot think." Well, with Dick Hamming around, we don't need a computer. I think that we are in for an extremely entertaining talk.
3. THE TALK
YOU AND YOUR RESEARCH
Talk at Bellcore, 7 March 1986
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. When I came to Bell Labs, I came into a very productive department. Bode was the department head at the time; Shannon was there, and there were other people. I continued examining the questions, ''Why?'' and ''What is the difference?'' I continued subsequently by reading biographies, autobiographies, asking people questions such as: ''How did you come to do this?'' I tried to find out what are the differences. And that's what this talk is about. Now, why is this talk important? I think it is important because, as far as I know, 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? I'm not going to define it - you know what I mean. I will talk mainly about science because that is what I have studied. But so far as I know, and I've been told by others, much of what I say applies to many fields. Outstanding work is characterized very much the same way in most fields, but I will confine myself to science. In order to get at you individually, I must talk in the first person. I have to get you to drop modesty and say to yourself, ''Yes, I would like to do first-class work.'' 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.'' In order to get to the second stage, I have to drop modesty and talk in the first person about what I've seen, what I've done, and what I've heard. I'm going to talk about people, some of whom you know, and I trust that when we leave, you won't quote me as saying some of the things I said. Let me start not logically, but psychologically. I find that the major objection is that people think great science is done by luck. It's all a matter of luck. Well, consider Einstein. Note how many different things he did that were good. Was it all luck? Wasn't it a little too repetitive? Consider Shannon. He didn't do just information theory. Several years before, he did some other good things and some which are still locked up in the security of cryptography. He did many good things. You see again and again, that it is more than one thing from a good person. Once in a while a person does only one thing in his whole life, and we'll talk about that later, but a lot of times there is repetition. I claim that luck will not cover everything. And I will cite Pasteur who said, ''Luck favors the prepared mind.'' And I think that says it the way I believe it. There is indeed an element of luck, and no, there isn't. The prepared mind sooner or later finds something important and does it. So yes, it is luck. The particular thing you do is luck, but that you do something is not. For example, when I came to Bell Labs, I shared an office for a while with Shannon. At the same time he was doing information theory, I was doing coding theory. It is suspicious that the two of us did it at the same place and at the same time - it was in the atmosphere. And you can say, ''Yes, it was luck.'' On the other hand you can say, ''But why of all the people in Bell Labs then were those the two who did it?'' Yes, it is partly luck, and partly it is the prepared mind; but ??partly' is the other thing I'm going to talk about. So, although I'll come back several more times to luck, I want to dispose of this matter of luck as being the sole criterion whether you do great work or not. I claim you have some,
but not total, control over it. And I will quote, finally, Newton on the matter. Newton said, ''If others would think as hard as I did, then they would get similar results.'' 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. Is it luck that he finally created special relativity? Early on, he had laid down some of the pieces by thinking of the fragments. Now that's the necessary but not sufficient condition. All of these items I will talk about are both luck and not luck.
How about having lots of ??brains?' It sounds good. Most of you in this room probably have more than enough brains to do first-class work. 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. For example, Bill Pfann, the fellow who did zone melting, came into my office one day. He had this idea dimly in his mind about what he wanted and he had some equations. It was pretty clear to me that this man didn't know much mathematics and he wasn't really articulate. His problem seemed interesting so I took it home and did a little work. I finally showed him how to run computers so he could compute his own answers. I gave him the power to compute. He went ahead, with negligible recognition from his own department, but ultimately he has collected all the prizes in the field. Once he got well started, his shyness, his awkwardness, his inarticulateness, fell away and he became much more productive in many other ways. Certainly he became much more articulate. And I can cite another person in the same way. I trust he isn't in the audience, i.e. a fellow named Clogston. I met him when I was working on a problem with John Pierce's group and I didn't think he had much. I asked my friends who had been with him at school, ''Was he like that in graduate school?'' ''Yes,'' they replied. Well I would have fired the fellow, but J. R. Pierce was smart and kept him on. Clogston finally did the Clogston cable. After that there was a steady stream of good ideas. One success brought him confidence and courage. 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.
But let me say why age seems to have the effect it does. In the first place if you do some good work you will find yourself on all kinds of committees and unable to do any more work. You may find yourself as I saw Brattain when he got a Nobel Prize. The day the prize was announced we all assembled in Arnold Auditorium; all three winners got up and made speeches. The third one, Brattain, practically with tears in his eyes, said, ''I know about this Nobel-Prize effect and I am not going to let it affect me; I am going to remain good old Walter Brattain.'' Well I said to myself, ''That is nice.'' But in a few weeks I saw it was affecting him. Now he could only work on great problems. 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. I give you a story from my own private life. Early on it became evident to me that Bell Laboratories was not going to give me the conventional acre of programming people to program computing machines in absolute binary. It was clear they weren't going to. But that was the way everybody did it. I could go to the West Coast and get a job with the airplane companies without any trouble, but the exciting people were at Bell Labs and the fellows out there in the airplane companies were not. I thought for a long while about, ''Did I want to go or not?'' and I wondered how I could get the best of two possible worlds. I finally said to myself, ''Hamming, you think the machines can do practically everything. Why can't you make them write programs?'' What appeared at first to me as a defect forced me into automatic programming very early. What appears to be a fault, often, by a change of viewpoint, turns out to be one of the greatest assets you can have. But you are not likely to think that when you first look the thing and say, ''Gee, I'm never going to get enough programmers, so how can I ever do any great programming?'' And there are many other stories of the same kind; Grace Hopper has similar ones. I think that if you look carefully you will see that often the great scientists, by turning the problem around a bit, changed a defect to an asset. For example, many scientists when they found they couldn't do a problem finally began to study why not. They then turned it around the other way and said, ''But of course, this is what it is'' and got an important
result. So ideal working conditions are very strange. The ones you want aren't always the best ones for you. Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode's office and said, ''How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?'' He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, ''You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.'' I simply slunk out of the office! What Bode was saying was this: ''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. I took Bode's remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done. I don't like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There's no question about this. On this matter of drive Edison says, ''Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.'' He may have been exaggerating, but the idea is that 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. There's another trait on the side which I want to talk about; that trait is ambiguity. It took me a while to discover its importance. 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. But most great scientists are well aware of why their theories are true and they are also well aware of some slight misfits which don't quite fit and they don't forget it. Darwin writes in his autobiography that he found it necessary to write down every piece of evidence which appeared to contradict his beliefs because otherwise they would disappear from his mind. When you find apparent flaws you've got to be sensitive and keep track of those things, and keep an eye out for how they can be explained or how the theory can be
changed to fit them. Those are often the great contributions. 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. Now again, emotional commitment is not enough. It is a necessary condition apparently. And I think I can tell you the reason why. Everybody who has studied creativity is driven finally to saying, ''creativity comes out of your
subconscious.'' Somehow, suddenly, there it is. It just appears. Well, we know very little about the subconscious; but one thing you are pretty well aware of is that your dreams also come out of your subconscious.
And you're aware your dreams are, to a fair extent, a reworking of the experiences of the day. If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there's the answer. For those who don't get committed to their current problem, the subconscious goofs off on other things and doesn't produce the big result. So 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. Now Alan Chynoweth mentioned that I used to eat at the physics table. I had been eating with the mathematicians and I found out that I already knew a fair amount of mathematics; in fact, I wasn't learning much. The physics table was, as he said, an exciting place, but I think he exaggerated on how much I contributed. It was very interesting to listen to Shockley, Brattain, Bardeen, J. B. Johnson, Ken McKay and other people, and I was learning a lot. But unfortunately a Nobel Prize came, and a promotion came, and what was left was the dregs. Nobody wanted what was left. Well, there was no use eating with them! Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, ''Do you mind if I join you?'' They can't say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, ''What are the important problems of your field?'' And after a week or so, ''What important problems are you working on?'' And after some more time I came in one day and said, ''If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?'' I wasn't welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring. In the fall, Dave McCall stopped me in the hall and said, ''Hamming, that remark of yours got underneath my skin. I thought about it all summer, i.e. what were the important problems in my field. I haven't changed my research,'' he says, ''but I think it was well worthwhile.'' And I said, ''Thank you Dave,'' and went on. I noticed a couple of months later he was made the head of the department. I noticed the other day he was a Member of the National Academy of Engineering. I noticed he has succeeded. I have
never heard the names of any of the other fellows at that table mentioned in science and scientific circles. They were unable to ask themselves, ''What are the important problems in my field?'' 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. Let me warn you, ??important problem' must be phrased carefully. The three outstanding problems in physics, in a certain sense, were never worked on while I was at Bell Labs. By important I mean guaranteed a Nobel Prize and any sum of money you want to mention. We didn't work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack. 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. When I say that mostscientists don't work on important problems, I mean it in that sense. 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. I spoke earlier about planting acorns so that oaks will grow. You can't always know exactly where to be, but you can keep active in places where something might happen. And even if you believe that great science is a matter of luck, you can stand on a mountain top where lightning strikes; you don't have to hide in the valley where you're safe. But the average scientist does routine safe work almost all the time and so he (or she) doesn't produce much. It's that simple. If you want to do great work, you clearly must work on important problems, and you should have an idea. Along those lines at some urging from John Tukey and others, I finally adopted what I called ''Great Thoughts Time.'' When I went to lunch Friday noon, I would only discuss great thoughts after that. By great thoughts I mean ones like: ''What will be the role of computers in all of AT&T?'', ''How will computers change science?'' For example, I came up with the observation at that time that nine out of ten experiments were done in the lab and one in ten on the computer. I made a remark to the vice presidents one time, that it would be reversed, i.e. nine out of ten experiments would be done on the computer and one in ten in the lab. They knew I was a crazy mathematician and had no sense of reality. I knew they were wrong and they've been proved wrong while I have been proved right. They built laboratories when they didn't need them. I saw that computers were transforming science because I spent a lot of time asking ''What will be the impact of computers on science and how can I change it?'' I asked myself, ''How is it going to change Bell Labs?'' I remarked one time, in the same address, that more than one-half of the people at Bell Labs will be interacting closely with computing machines before I leave. Well, you all have terminals now. I thought hard about where was my field going, where were the opportunities, and what were the important things to do. Let me go there so there is a chance I can do important things. Most great scientists know many important problems. They have something between 10 and 20 important problems for which they are looking for an attack. And when they see