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You and Your Research
January 4, 2009 7:23 PM   Subscribe

You and Your Research was a talk given by Richard Hamming in 1986. Read it if you have an interest in doing first-class work.
posted by parudox (24 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm only interested in doing second-rate work, so I'll pass.
posted by Eekacat at 7:58 PM on January 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


wow - this is a great talk. I did an internship at Bellcore one year after this was given, and certainly met folks there doing "great work." I'm going to chew on this and see how to apply it to my own work. Thanks, parudox!
posted by dylanjames at 7:58 PM on January 4, 2009


That's a fantastic talk, I'd never seen it before.

Hamming has another extroardinary essay "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics" that is also on my list of Things Every Scientist Should Read. (Along with this one now)

"The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics" was written as a response to Eugene Wigner's equally excellent "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences"
posted by pseudonick at 8:15 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


"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."

What do we think about this?
posted by escabeche at 8:24 PM on January 4, 2009


Oh, this is a favourite of mine. It's influenced me tremendously.

You might also enjoy Technology and Courage [pdf] by Ivan Sutherland.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:30 PM on January 4, 2009


There's more to research than Wikipedia?
posted by filthy light thief at 8:34 PM on January 4, 2009


"You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There's no question about this."

What do we think about this?


Seems about right to me.
posted by oddman at 8:40 PM on January 4, 2009


What do we think about this?

With limited resources, life becomes an optimization problem.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 8:49 PM on January 4, 2009 [4 favorites]


With limited resources, life becomes an optimization problem.

True. And yet, here I am again.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:06 PM on January 4, 2009 [14 favorites]


Well that was a long bit of rambling. Moderately interesting but it reminded me of listening to anybody who has been in any field for a while ramble on about their take on things. A lot of things underpinning many of the experiences too, but I guess I should be thankful he didn't attempt to touch on those as well.
posted by cashman at 9:21 PM on January 4, 2009


You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There's no question about this.

Life is juggling. You put a bunch of balls in the air. If you put too many up there, some of them are going to end up on the floor. Which ones? It's your call ...
posted by woodblock100 at 9:56 PM on January 4, 2009


Thanks very much for posting this, and thanks others for the additional links. I'm sure most people here are aware of them, but for similar "practical tips for the scientist" Richard Feynman's general-interest books are great reads.
posted by skwt at 11:56 PM on January 4, 2009


I take it "first-class work" equals funding (money) to most people and to this guy.

So The Awful Truth, as told to me by senior PhDs in "the sciences" (mostly chemistry, physics, math):

1) Work for someone Famous. If you have Talent that's great, but even if you don't you'll still have access to "first-class work" i.e. money.

2) If you can't work for someone Famous (most people), you'd better have Talent and even if you do, you won't necessarily ever have access to "first-class work", and it'll be a long, long time before recognition and you have access to "first-class work".

Or if you just enjoy the work, then sit back and enjoy the work, but realize you may never get anywhere.
posted by peppito at 12:20 AM on January 5, 2009


I will never understand why scientists fail so utterly at being scientific when doing biographical and autobiographical retrospectives. Next to research, creating scientists is their major goal yet they use techniques that haven't changed much for a few hundred years.

All of the factors he talks about are really empirical questions that can be examined yet the only data on offer are anecdotal. That is not unique to his account. It's the way almost all science biographies are told, understood and believed.

Why are scientists so resistant to subjecting themselves to their own methods? Why do we as a society create scientists mostly by inefficient accident? We put more efficient effort and science into creating track and field stars than the people who shape our future.
posted by srboisvert at 1:50 AM on January 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


srboisvert: I think most great scientists in the hard sciences will be much more productive in their own field rather than in the social sciences that study the cause of their greatness. Besides, a scientific account would probably be rather uninteresting and nowhere as effective to the layman (the non-social scientist).
posted by parudox at 6:18 AM on January 5, 2009


What do we think about this?

escabeche, Richard Hamming is saying that great scientists value doing great science above all other things, i.e., if he valued making his wife happy above all other things then he wouldn't have done great science. He is making a statement about himself (he valued his work more than his wife) but is implying that it is a general fact about all great scientists. (Some spouses are willing to play second fiddle; some are not.) I think he may be right but I also think such people would have valued their work above their spouses whether they were great or not. Does this mean that, if one values others above one's own interests one cannot be a great scientist? Yes, that kind of person is needed elsewhere.
posted by kindalike at 6:18 AM on January 5, 2009


Why are scientists so resistant to subjecting themselves to their own methods?

For the most part, this seems only to crop up in the memoirs of "hard" scientists and mathematicians. One possible answer to your question is that psychology and sociology aren't deemed capable (by people like Hamming, that is) of generating a good model of the making of a scientist.
posted by voltairemodern at 6:52 AM on January 5, 2009


Why do we as a society create scientists mostly by inefficient accident?

Because science education is not designed to teach, it is designed to weed out the "second tier" of potential scientists. This is also a factor is why science is so poorly understood by the general population.

(Successfully weeded-out third-tier geologist cum history of science major cum librarian speaking)
posted by stet at 6:54 AM on January 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I felt some distance from this talk.
posted by cogneuro at 7:05 AM on January 5, 2009


Wow. That was an awful, rambling, pointless talk. If superb research were really easy, there'd be many, many, many fewer mediocre scientists.
posted by TypographicalError at 7:24 AM on January 5, 2009


Great article/speech. Thanks for posting it.
posted by Outlawyr at 7:27 AM on January 5, 2009


I found it really inspirational.

These were my takeaways:

"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." ...

"If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work." ...

"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." ...

"I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important." ...

"You should do your job in such a fashion that others can build on top of it, so they will indeed say, ``Yes, I've stood on so and so's shoulders and I saw further.'' The essence of science is cumulative. By changing a problem slightly you can often do great work rather than merely good work. Instead of attacking isolated problems, I made the resolution that I would never again solve an isolated problem except as characteristic of a class."

I thought these were all important, insightful observations. If you want to do important things in any field, you have to tackle important problems. That seems obvious, but, for example in my field, you're never going to make the next "Citizen Kane" if you're not out there trying to make the next "Citizen Kane." It's about accessing your priorities, and asking yourself whether or not you are doing something important or something trivial.
posted by MythMaker at 10:34 AM on January 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Because science education is not designed to teach, it is designed to weed out the "second tier" of potential scientists. This is also a factor is why science is so poorly understood by the general population.

That's true, but from experience it doesn't actually result in better scientists. More creative people go elsewhere to be more creative right away (arts), less patient people go into business, greedier people go into medicine (heh) or business.

The result is that you get the few who are willing to do "whatever it takes"/jump through any hoop in order to make it - for good or bad - the desperate.

In other words, what is NOT weeded out in the process is: those with social prejudices, anti-social and/or moronic behavior, those who lack any and all empathy/sympathy for others, arrogance, pettiness, those who like to abuse their underlings.

It's not for the thin-skinned.
posted by peppito at 12:13 PM on January 5, 2009


Wow. That was an awful, rambling, pointless talk. If superb research were really easy, there'd be many, many, many fewer mediocre scientists.

He didn't say it was easy, but rather "It's just that simple and that hard!"
posted by metaplectic at 1:02 AM on January 8, 2009


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