Working on the Right Problems

Mar 22, 2022

Richard Hamming worked on the right problems. He helped form the basis for Information Theory at Bell Labs with his groundbreaking research on error-detecting and error-correcting codes (he shared an office with Claude Shannon, the 'Father of Information Theory'). Not only that – he observed many of the great scientists that worked on the right problems. He was with Richard Feynman and Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, working on the Manhattan Project.

But one of his most accessible legacies is a seminar he gave in his later years as a professor that sought to answer the question:

Why do so few scientists make significant contributions and so many are forgotten in the long run?

Hamming's talk was titled You and Your Research. He breaks down his observations.

  • 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 a new replacement theory.
  • Creativity comes out of your subconscious. So keep your subconscious starved, so it has to work on your problem, so you can sleep peacefully and get the answer in the morning, free.
  • Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest. Given two people of approximately the same ability and one who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former.
  • Drive gets you far. But, the steady application of effort with a little bit more work intelligently applied is what does it.
  • When an opportunity opens up, great scientists get after it and pursue it. They drop all other things. They get rid of other things, and they get after an idea because they had already thought the thing through.
  • 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.
  • It isn't what you do. It's the way that you do it.
  • The essence of science is cumulative. Therefore, 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.'
  • It is a poor workman who blames his tools - the good person gets on with the job, given what they have, and gets the best answer they can.
  • Luck favors the prepared mind. There's an element of luck, and there isn't.