In an aside to this post, Mark Liberman at Language Log links to a wonderful talk by Richard W Hamming on how to do significant research. This is a useful collection of observations for anyone who wants to go beyond the solid, plodding “good” to the really first-class. (Not, I hasten to add, lest this post come back to haunt me, that there’s anything remotely wrong with “good”. I have a long way to go to get even that far; and Hamming himself pretty much admits that, as a general rule, unless you are a towering Pauling-esque genius you can be happy or you can be significant.)
[updated, see below]
Having read the whole thing again in order to pull some quotes (below), it strikes me that there is an aspect of Hamming’s advice that is rather calculating (mol biologists will know what I mean when I say that I can imagine James Watson nodding sagely as he reads the Hamming transcript). Hamming talks about letting other people change the system, you concentrate on your great science; cultivate the movers and shakers, and drop the others like yesterday’s burrito; write overviews in the form of books because that will garner longer term recognition than papers; and so on. There’s a cold motif of singlemindedness, even selfishness, there; and even a whiff, to me, of “cherrypicking”, of choosing problems based on the kudos a solution might bring. He might be right about what it takes to do the kind of work that gets things named after you and ensures your place in the science curriculum for all time. I confess, though, that I have a weakness for fighting the system just ‘cos, and — perhaps this one is easier to defend — for taking on a problem simply because it interests me.
That said, I don’t think Hamming is advising young scientists to abandon all in a ruthless quest for a Nobel Prize, and his talk contains a great deal of useful experience distilled into a 20-minute read.
Some excerpts (but read the whole thing, even if it does meander a little):
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.
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.
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. […] By realizing you have to use the system and studying how to get the system to do your work, you learn how to adapt the system to your desires. Or you can fight it steadily, as a small undeclared war, for the whole of your life.
… you know the idea called the “critical mass”. If you have enough stuff you have critical mass. There is also the idea I used to call `sound absorbers’. When you get too many sound absorbers, you give out an idea and they merely say, “Yes, yes, yes.” What you want to do is get that critical mass in action; “Yes, that reminds me of so and so,” or, “Have you thought about that or this?” When you talk to other people, you want to get rid of those sound absorbers who are nice people but merely say, “Oh yes,” and to find those who will stimulate you right back.