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Question: You mentioned the problem of the Nobel Prize and the subsequent notoriety of what was done to some of the careers. Isn't that kind of a much more broad problem of fame? What can one do? 

Hamming: Some things you could do are the following. Somewhere around every seven years make a significant, if not complete, shift in your field. Thus, I shifted from numerical analysis, to hardware, to software, and so on, periodically, because you tend to use up your ideas. When you go to a new field, you have to start over as a baby. You are no longer the big mukity muk and you can start back there and you can start planting those acorns which will become the giant oaks. Shannon, I believe, ruined himself. In fact when he left Bell Labs, I said, "That's the end of Shannon's scientific career.'' I received a lot of flak from my friends who said that Shannon was just as smart as ever. I said, "Yes, he'll be just as smart, but that's the end of his scientific career,'' and I truly believe it was.

You have to change. You get tired after a while; you use up your originality in one field. You need to get something nearby. I'm not saying that you shift from music to theoretical physics to English literature; I mean within your field you should shift areas so that you don't go stale. You couldn't get away with forcing a change every seven years, but if you could, I would require a condition for doing research, being that you will change your field of research every seven years with a reasonable definition of what it means, or at the end of 10 years, management has the right to compel you to change. I would insist on a change because I'm serious. What happens to the old fellows is that they get a technique going; they keep on using it. They were marching in that direction which was right then, but the world changes. There's the new direction; but the old fellows are still marching in their former direction.

You need to get into a new field to get new viewpoints, and before you use up all the old ones. You can do something about this, but it takes effort and energy. It takes courage to say, "Yes, I will give up my great reputation.'' For example, when error correcting codes were well launched, having these theories, I said, "Hamming, you are going to quit reading papers in the field; you are going to ignore it completely; you are going to try and do something else other than coast on that.'' I deliberately refused to go on in that field. I wouldn't even read papers to try to force myself to have a chance to do something else. I managed myself, which is what I'm preaching in this whole talk. Knowing many of my own faults, I manage myself. I have a lot of faults, so I've got a lot of problems, i.e. a lot of possibilities of management.

Question: Would you compare research and management?

Hamming: If you want to be a great researcher, you won't make it being president of the company. If you want to be president of the company, that's another thing. I'm not against being president of the company. I just don't want to be. I think Ian Ross does a good job as President of Bell Labs. I'm not against it; but you have to be clear on what you want. Furthermore, when you're young, you may have picked wanting to be a great scientist, but as you live longer, you may change your mind. For instance, I went to my boss, Bode, one day and said, "Why did you ever become department head? Why didn't you just be a good scientist?'' He said, "Hamming, I had a vision of what mathematics should be in Bell Laboratories. And I saw if that vision was going to be realized, I had to make it happen; I had to be department head.'' When your vision of what you want to do is what you can do single-handedly, then you should pursue it. The day your vision, what you think needs to be done, is bigger than what you can do single-handedly, then you have to move toward management. And the bigger the vision is, the farther in management you have to go. If you have a vision of what the whole laboratory should be, or the whole Bell System, you have to get there to make it happen. You can't make it happen from the bottom very easily. It depends upon what goals and what desires you have. And as they change in life, you have to be prepared to change. I chose to avoid management because I preferred to do what I could do single-handedly. But that's the choice that I made, and it is biased. Each person is entitled to their choice. Keep an open mind. But when you do choose a path, for heaven's sake be aware of what you have done and the choice you have made. Don't try to do both sides.

Question: How important is one's own expectation or how important is it to be in a group or surrounded by people who expect great work from you?

Hamming: At Bell Labs everyone expected good work from me - it was a big help. Everybody expects you to do a good job, so you do, if you've got pride. I think it's very valuable to have first-class people around. I sought out the best people. The moment that physics table lost the best people, I left. The moment I saw that the same was true of the chemistry table, I left. I tried to go with people who had great ability so I could learn from them and who would expect great results out of me. By deliberately managing myself, I think I did much better than laissez faire.

Question: You, at the outset of your talk, minimized or played down luck; but you seemed also to gloss over the circumstances that got you to Los Alamos, that got you to Chicago, that got you to Bell Laboratories.

Hamming: There was some luck. On the other hand I don't know the alternate branches. Until you can say that the other branches would not have been equally or more successful, I can't say. Is it luck the particular thing you do? For example, when I met Feynman at Los Alamos, I knew he was going to get a Nobel Prize. I didn't know what for. But I knew darn well he was going to do great work. No matter what directions came up in the future, this man would do great work. And sure enough, he did do great work. It isn't that you only do a little great work at this circumstance and that was luck, there are many opportunities sooner or later. There are a whole pail full of opportunities, of which, if you're in this situation, you seize one and you're great over there instead of over here. There is an element of luck, yes and no. Luck favors a prepared mind; luck favors a prepared person. It is not guaranteed; I don't guarantee success as being absolutely certain. I'd say luck changes the odds, but there is some definite control on the part of the individual.

Go forth, then, and do great work!

(End of the General Research Colloquium Talk.)



 
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