28 January 2006

Richard Hamming on doing important work.

One of the most unsettling things I’ve read in a long time is computer scientist Richard Hamming’s lecture, “You and Your Research,” which is posted at Paul Graham’s excellent site. It is so unsettling because of the way that Hamming emphasizes the need for scientists to concentrate on doing breakthrough work.

Hamming tells the story of looking for a new table to join in the Bell Labs lunchroom after several of his friends left the physics table:
Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, "Do you mind if I join you?'' They can't say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, "What are the important problems of your field?'' And after a week or so, "What important problems are you working on?'' And after some more time I came in one day and said, "If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?'' I wasn't welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring.

In the fall, Dave McCall stopped me in the hall and said, "Hamming, that remark of yours got underneath my skin. I thought about it all summer, i.e. what were the important problems in my field. I haven't changed my research,'' he says, "but I think it was well worthwhile.'' And I said, "Thank you Dave,'' and went on. I noticed a couple of months later he was made the head of the department. I noticed the other day he was a Member of the National Academy of Engineering. I noticed he has succeeded. I have never heard the names of any of the other fellows at that table mentioned in science and scientific circles. They were unable to ask themselves, "What are the important problems in my field?''

If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work. It's perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them.
This sets the bar high--where it should be. Of course, setting the bar high reveals that our typical efforts (read: my usual daily S.O.P.) are inadequate.

One of the best devices I've heard of--and which I occasionally force myself to use--is the "obituary test" for your current actions and projects. It's a simple test: Assume that some day you merit a big obituary in The New York Times or the like. Would this activity in question make it into that obituary? If not, why are you doing it?

Seth Godin has a similar idea: "What's going to be on your tombstone?"

My ideal epitaph: "Wow!"


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