« Ken Miller on Intelligent Design | Main | Backyard science »

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.

posted April 16, 2006 10:37 PM in Simply Academic | permalink