Monday, June 11, 2018

How to do good scientific research work - Advice from Richard Hamming

Richard Hamming is an american mathematician who worked in Bell labs and discovered error correcting codes and digital filters among other things. He gave a talk called 'You and Your Research' about how to do great work. It is worth reading the original fully so go ahead and read it here.

Here are some interesting points from that lecture.

He talks about luck here.. 

Once in a while a person does only one thing in his whole life, and we'll talk about that later, but a lot of times there is repetition. I claim that luck will not cover everything. And I will cite Pasteur who said, ``Luck favors the prepared mind.'' And I think that says it the way I believe it. There is indeed an element of luck, and no, there isn't. The prepared mind sooner or later finds something important and does it. So yes, it is luck. The particular thing you do is luck, but that you do something is not.


The importance of courage and confidence. 


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. 

On turning defects to assets


I think that if you look carefully you will see that often the great scientists, by turning the problem around a bit, changed a defect to an asset. For example, many scientists when they found they couldn't do a problem finally began to study why not. They then turned it around the other way and said, ``But of course, this is what it is'' and got an important result. 
Talking about compounding of learning and how having the drive does it


``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. 

On being committed and thinking about a problem till you find a solution


when you have a real important problem you don't let anything else get the center of your attention - you keep your thoughts on the problem. 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.


On thinking and attacking the important problems in the field. 


If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work. It's perfectly obvious.You can't always know exactly where to be, but you can keep active in places where something might happen. And even if you believe that great science is a matter of luck, you can stand on a mountain top where lightning strikes; you don't have to hide in the valley where you're safe. 
Most great scientists know many important problems. They have something between 10 and 20 important problems for which they are looking for an attack. And when they see a new idea come up, one hears them say ``Well that bears on this problem.'' They drop all the other things and get after it.The great scientists, when an opportunity opens up, get after it and they 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. Their minds are prepared; they see the opportunity and they go after it. Now of course lots of times it doesn't work out, but you don't have to hit many of them to do some great science. It's kind of easy. One of the chief tricks is to live a long time!

On generalizing the results of your work


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.

You have to sell your work


You have to learn to write clearly and well so that people will read it, you must learn to give reasonably formal talks, and you also must learn to give informal talks.

on self-delusion


 self-delusion in humans is very, very common. There are enumerable ways of you changing a thing and kidding yourself and making it look some other way. When you ask, ``Why didn't you do such and such,'' the person has a thousand alibis. If you look at the history of science, usually these days there are 10 people right there ready, and we pay off for the person who is there first. The other nine fellows say, ``Well, I had the idea but I didn't do it and so on and so on.'' There are so many alibis. Why weren't you first? Why didn't you do it right? Don't try an alibi. Don't try and kid yourself. You can tell other people all the alibis you want. I don't mind. But to yourself try to be honest.

Summarizing 

In summary, I claim that some of the reasons why so many people who have greatness within their grasp don't succeed are: they don't work on important problems, they don't become emotionally involved, they don't try and change what is difficult to some other situation which is easily done but is still important, and they keep giving themselves alibis why they don't. They keep saying that it is a matter of luck. 

Go read the whole thing. It is very interesting and packed with gems!

Pair it up with the process for inventing anything by Claude Shannon, the inventor of information theory here

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