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DISCUSSION - QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

A. G. Chynoweth: Well that was 50 minutes of concentrated wisdom and observations accumulated over a fantastic career; I lost track of all the observations that were striking home. Some of them are very very timely. One was the plea for more computer capacity; I was hearing nothing but that this morning from several people, over and over again. So that was right on the mark today even though here we are 20 - 30 years after when you were making similar remarks, Dick. I can think of all sorts of lessons that all of us can draw from your talk. And for one, as I walk around the halls in the future I hope I won't see as many closed doors in Bellcore. That was one observation I thought was very intriguing.

Thank you very, very much indeed Dick; that was a wonderful recollection. I'll now open it up for questions. I'm sure there are many people who would like to take up on some of the points that Dick was making.

Hamming: First let me respond to Alan Chynoweth about computing. I had computing in research and for 10 years I kept telling my management, "Get that !&@#% machine out of research. We are being forced to run problems all the time. We can't do research because were too busy operating and running the computing machines.'' Finally the message got through. They were going to move computing out of research to someplace else. I was persona non grata to say the least and I was surprised that people didn't kick my shins because everybody was having their toy taken away from them. I went in to Ed David's office and said, "Look Ed, you've got to give your researchers a machine. If you give them a great big machine, we'll be back in the same trouble we were before, so busy keeping it going we can't think. Give them the smallest machine you can because they are very able people. They will learn how to do things on a small machine instead of mass computing.'' As far as I'm concerned, that's how UNIX arose. We gave them a moderately small machine and they decided to make it do great things. They had to come up with a system to do it on. It is called UNIX!

A. G. Chynoweth: I just have to pick up on that one. In our present environment, Dick, while we wrestle with some of the red tape attributed to, or required by, the regulators, there is one quote that one exasperated AVP came up with and I've used it over and over again. He growled that, "UNIX was never a deliverable!''

Question: What about personal stress? Does that seem to make a difference?

Hamming: Yes, it does. If you don't get emotionally involved, it doesn't. I had incipient ulcers most of the years that I was at Bell Labs. I have since gone off to the Naval Postgraduate School and laid back somewhat, and now my health is much better. But if you want to be a great scientist you're going to have to put up with stress. You can lead a nice life; you can be a nice guy or you can be a great scientist. But nice guys end last, is what Leo Durocher said. If you want to lead a nice happy life with a lot of recreation and everything else, you'll lead a nice life.

Question: The remarks about having courage, no one could argue with; but those of us who have gray hairs or who are well established don't have to worry too much. But what I sense among the young people these days is a real concern over the risk taking in a highly competitive environment. Do you have any words of wisdom on this?

Hamming: I'll quote Ed David more. Ed David was concerned about the general loss of nerve in our society. It does seem to me that we've gone through various periods. Coming out of the war, coming out of Los Alamos where we built the bomb, coming out of building the radars and so on, there came into the mathematics department, and the research area, a group of people with a lot of guts. They've just seen things done; they've just won a war which was fantastic. We had reasons for having courage and therefore we did a great deal. I can't arrange that situation to do it again. I cannot blame the present generation for not having it, but I agree with what you say; I just cannot attach blame to it. It doesn't seem to me they have the desire for greatness; they lack the courage to do it. But we had, because we were in a favorable circumstance to have it; we just came through a tremendously successful war. In the war we were looking very, very bad for a long while; it was a very desperate struggle as you well know. And our success, I think, gave us courage and self confidence; that's why you see, beginning in the late forties through the fifties, a tremendous productivity at the labs which was stimulated from the earlier times. Because many of us were earlier forced to learn other things - we were forced to learn the things we didn't want to learn, we were forced to have an open door - and then we could exploit those things we learned. It is true, and I can't do anything about it; I cannot blame the present generation either. It's just a fact.

Question: Is there something management could or should do?

Hamming: Management can do very little. If you want to talk about managing research, that's a totally different talk. I'd take another hour doing that. This talk is about how the individual gets very successful research done in spite of anything the management does or in spite of any other opposition. And how do you do it? Just as I observe people doing it. It's just that simple and that hard!

Question: Is brainstorming a daily process?

Hamming: Once that was a very popular thing, but it seems not to have paid off. For myself I find it desirable to talk to other people; but a session of brainstorming is seldom worthwhile. I do go in to strictly talk to somebody and say, "Look, I think there has to be something here. Here's what I think I see ...'' and then begin talking back and forth. But you want to pick capable people. To use another analogy, you know the idea called the `critical mass.' If you have enough stuff you have critical mass. There is also the idea I used to call `sound absorbers'. When you get too many sound absorbers, you give out an idea and they merely say, "Yes, yes, yes.'' What you want to do is get that critical mass in action; "Yes, that reminds me of so and so,'' or, "Have you thought about that or this?'' When you talk to other people, you want to get rid of those sound absorbers who are nice people but merely say, "Oh yes,'' and to find those who will stimulate you right back.

For example, you couldn't talk to John Pierce without being stimulated very quickly. There were a group of other people I used to talk with. For example there was Ed Gilbert; I used to go down to his office regularly and ask him questions and listen and come back stimulated. I picked my people carefully with whom I did or whom I didn't brainstorm because the sound absorbers are a curse. They are just nice guys; they fill the whole space and they contribute nothing except they absorb ideas and the new ideas just die away instead of echoing on. Yes, I find it necessary to talk to people. I think people with closed doors fail to do this so they fail to get their ideas sharpened, such as "Did you ever notice something over here?'' I never knew anything about it - I can go over and look. Somebody points the way. On my visit here, I have already found several books that I must read when I get home. I talk to people and ask questions when I think they can answer me and give me clues that I do not know about. I go out and look!

Question: What kind of tradeoffs did you make in allocating your time for reading and writing and actually doing research?

Hamming: I believed, in my early days, that you should spend at least as much time in the polish and presentation as you did in the original research. Now at least 50% of the time must go for the presentation. It's a big, big number.

Question: How much effort should go into library work?

Hamming: It depends upon the field. I will say this about it. There was a fellow at Bell Labs, a very, very, smart guy. He was always in the library; he read everything. If you wanted references, you went to him and he gave you all kinds of references. But in the middle of forming these theories, I formed a proposition: there would be no effect named after him in the long run. He is now retired from Bell Labs and is an Adjunct Professor. He was very valuable; I'm not questioning that. He wrote some very good Physical Review articles; but there's no effect named after him because he read too much. If you read all the time what other people have done you will think the way they thought. If you want to think new thoughts that are different, then do what a lot of creative people do - get the problem reasonably clear and then refuse to look at any answers until you've thought the problem through carefully how you would do it, how you could slightly change the problem to be the correct one. So yes, you need to keep up. You need to keep up more to find out what the problems are than to read to find the solutions. The reading is necessary to know what is going on and what is possible. But reading to get the solutions does not seem to be the way to do great research. So I'll give you two answers. You read; but it is not the amount, it is the way you read that counts.

Question: How do you get your name attached to things?

Hamming: By doing great work. I'll tell you the hamming window one. I had given Tukey a hard time, quite a few times, and I got a phone call from him from Princeton to me at Murray Hill. I knew that he was writing up power spectra and he asked me if I would mind if he called a certain window a "Hamming window.'' And I said to him, "Come on, John; you know perfectly well I did only a small part of the work but you also did a lot.'' He said, "Yes, Hamming, but you contributed a lot of small things; you're entitled to some credit.'' So he called it the hamming window. Now, let me go on. I had twitted John frequently about true greatness. I said true greatness is when your name is like ampere, watt, and fourier - when it's spelled with a lower case letter. That's how the hamming window came about.

Question: Dick, would you care to comment on the relative effectiveness between giving talks, writing papers, and writing books?

Hamming: In the short-haul, papers are very important if you want to stimulate someone tomorrow. If you want to get recognition long-haul, it seems to me writing books is more contribution because most of us need orientation. In this day of practically infinite knowledge, we need orientation to find our way. Let me tell you what infinite knowledge is. Since from the time of Newton to now, we have come close to doubling knowledge every 17 years, more or less. And we cope with that, essentially, by specialization. In the next 340 years at that rate, there will be 20 doublings, i.e. a million, and there will be a million fields of specialty for every one field now. It isn't going to happen. The present growth of knowledge will choke itself off until we get different tools. I believe that books which try to digest, coordinate, get rid of the duplication, get rid of the less fruitful methods and present the underlying ideas clearly of what we know now, will be the things the future generations will value. Public talks are necessary; private talks are necessary; written papers are necessary. But I am inclined to believe that, in the long-haul, books which leave out what's not essential are more important than books which tell you everything because you don't want to know everything. I don't want to know that much about penguins is the usual reply. You just want to know the essence.



 
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