April 16, 2006
The view from the top
Richard Hamming, of coding theory fame, gave a talk at Bell Labs in 1986 as a retrospective on his career and his insights into how to do great research. In it, he tells many amusing anecdotes of his time at Bell Labs, including how he and Shannon were office mates at the same time he was working on information theory, and why so many of the smart people he knew produced little great research by the end of their careers. A fascinating read.
Hamming on the subject of a researcher's 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!
On the topic of knowing the limitations of your theories:
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.
The rest of his talk is more of the same, but with longer stories and amusing anecdotes.
April 15, 2006
Ken Miller on Intelligent Design
Ken Miller, a cell biologist at Brown University, gave a (roughly hour long) talk at Case Western University in January on his involvement in the Dover PA trial on the teaching of Intelligent Design in American public schools. The talk is accessible, intelligent and interesting. Dr. Miller is an excellent speaker and if you can hang-in there until the Q&A at the end, he'll make an somewhat scary connection between the former dominance of the Islamic world (the Caliphate) in scientific progress and its subsequent trend toward non-rational theocratic thinking, and the position of the United States (and perhaps all of Western civilization) relative to its own future.