You choose, but both paths involve outrageous fortune. Me? I can’t figure it out.
Until six months ago I had never heard of Richard Hamming, a masterful mathematician and computer scientist from Bell Labs. I’d heard of Bell Labs all right, a celebrated hot zone of physics and computational research and home to no less than six Nobel laureates. But of Hamming? Nothing.
Then last year Deanne Taylor blogged about the transcript of a talk Hamming had given in 1986, at the grand old age of 71, on the topic of “You and your research.” I read it and thought it presented a fantastic—if somewhat intimidating—insight into how to do great research. Some of the points made are fairly self-evident, but there are also acute observations and the cumulative effect is quite powerful. Heather returned thoughtfully to Hamming’s article just last week, coincidentally more or less at the same time as I was discussing it in group meeting. So this is well-trodden ground. But at least that means I should be able to find my way.
Or so I thought. I was going to write a detailed and considered piece on Hamming’s talk but it quickly got out of hand; the transcript such a rich repast that I realise I haven’t yet digested it all properly and simply don’t have the time to do the piece real justice. I can flag up some of my own highlights but strongly recommend people to check out the article for themselves. A brutally condensed version was published by PLoS Computational Biology as part of their Ten Simple Rules series.
Bottom line: if you want to be great, brains are not enough. You’ll need total and utter dedication to your work, at the cost of sacrificing other parts of your life. Chew on that, family guys. While you’re masticating there are two other aspects to the hard work business worth mentioning. Firstly—echoing Poincaré—Hamming believes that concentrated study is necessary to feed the sub-conscious mind so that it is primed to worry away at your problem, even when you’re not thinking about it. What dreams may come? Who hasn’t had a great idea or flicker of insight while doing the dishes after a period of intense focus? Secondly, and this is something I hadn’t fully appreciated before (not that great, you see), he makes the telling point that the combination of knowledge accumulation and effort over a period of years work together like ‘compound interest’ to improve your productivity. A similar point about effort and productivity—or achievement—was recently touched upon in Malcolm Gladwell’s interesting thesis that great work (in any field) demands at least 10,000 hours of dedication. Alas, I haven’t been counting.
But there’s more. Hamming recommends you take time out from your every-day regime of hard work to think “great thoughts”, to step back, look at the wider context of your research to see what are its most important facets. About 10% ought to do it; Hamming himself devoted Friday afternoons to great thinking. OK that’s not so original but how many of us make the time to do it?
However, it’s not sufficient just to be thinking in isolation; you need to find challenging conversants with whom you can chew over the fat and gristle of your theories. This last point resonated with my reading of Horace Judson’s superb history of molecular biology (_The Eighth Day of Creation_) in which I was struck by the fact that so many of the major advances came from remarkable pairings of scientists (Luria and Delbrück, Watson and Crick, Crick and Brenner, Monod and Jacob), all of whom would devote large amounts of time to just talking to each other about their work.
And there’s yet more. Heather already mentioned his point about needing courage and confidence to do great work. The confidence needs to be nurtured (sometimes by supportive supervision) and earned, by having the courage to have a go and hopefully reaping the boost to your self-belief that derives from even a small success. On this theme, Hamming made an interesting observation about the post-WWII generation in the Q&A session following the talk. Drawing on his own experience of the Manhattan Project, he felt that scientists who had worked on problems as part of the war effort had derived a great deal of courage and self-confidence by having faced down the adversity of wartime. Because they had had to tackle the problems caused by the extreme duress of war—as much through fear as through courage perhaps—and ultimately been successful, they were poised to just keep on working in the same mindset once the war was over. That particular type of duress is not accessible to us (fortunately) so we are forced to find other means to build our courage and confidence.
Hamming is blunt in his assessments and makes no bones of the fact that greatness comes at a cost. The question is, do you want it? And if so, do you want it for the right reasons? And are you prepared to make the necessary sacrifices? I was glad to see him make the point that the real value of seeking to do great science is in the struggle, not in any transient fame dividend that might accrue from your success. This accords with my own thinking, influenced in part by Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a protracted argument that the experience of quality is one of profound importance to human beings.
I am not a great scientist. Nor am I likely to be. But I want to be a good scientist, who does excellent work. Hamming’s advice is certainly valuable in this regard and may help me to work more effectively (though I think I can guess what he would have said about blogging…), but there is this endless tension between work and all the other parts of life (shared by many others). The slings and arrows of that balancing act are painful. Even Hamming owned up to suffering from stress for much of his time at Bell labs. I suspect there are many who are better at achieving a healthy equilibrium but I find science a beautiful and terrible lover.