Sunday, July 31, 2011

What is the difference?

Some excerpts from a talk by Richard Hamming (inventor of, among other things, hamming codes) on how to do great research. I recommend reading the whole thing!

You and Your Research: ... 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.

... 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.

... 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. ...

I found this transcript via a discussion of learning and spaced repetition.


David Coughlin said...

I keep telling myself [but not acting on it] that I need to get a tablet so I can get a spaced repetition program going.

steve hsu said...

If anyone is doing this please let us know what you think and how it works. I'd consider doing it to improve my Mandarin.

Della said...

I envy people surrounded by geniuses but a place in Los Alamos or the Advanced Institute is just hard to come by. Besides, timing is so important, bad timing made first rate people make second rate discoveries or inventions. I have always wondered if people born after 1960s' had a bad timing for studying theoretical physics - I guess by 2013 the answer will come out?

gwern0 said...

I don't know if you saw it, but I just put up a big section covering some of the research literature: There's no reasonable doubt that it works.

Also, as I understand it, Anki has a website interface which syncs with the local or mobile clients.

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