To be or not to be great

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.

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16 Responses to To be or not to be great

  1. steffi suhr says:

    but there is this endless tension between work and all the other parts of life
    That’s exactly it. And I am going to be terribly unfair and say that the very successful people (not just scientists) I have met definitely seemed to me to have thrown all their resources at being ‘great’. In a lot of instances, they were also supported by a whole bunch of other people (families, assistants, etc.) who were happy (or forced) to step back and bustle away in the shadows. And another thing – and this goes with the confidence needed – these successful people seemed to me to have always assumed they were great to begin with.
    Hamming says it himself very clearly in his talk:
    I don’t like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There’s no question about this.
    As impressive as it can be, ‘greatness’ scares me a little. I’m much happier bustling, and having others to bustle with.

  2. Stephen Curry says:

    The thing about a life in science is that the job is so open-ended (though I’m sure that’s found in other walks of life too). And there is often a culture of very long hours. I’ve neglected my family on occasion without even being great(!), which I’m not proud of, but at the same time when you are striving to make an academic career, it’s a fate that seems difficult to avoid.
    On the issue of confidence, I guess some people do have it in-built, but I definitely think that in others (especially more junior lab-members) it can be fostered.

  3. steffi suhr says:

    Stephen, Anna just posted about two very nice examples of greatness.

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks for the link, Steffi. Sabeti (one of Anna’s examples) certainly does seem to conform to the ‘great’ type (based on a couple of links fron Anna’s post) – highly driven, and not just scientifically. The bit about 2 hours sleep a night (see the Science profile linked to from Sabeti’s site) put me off a bit!
    As for me, I took the weekend off to visit my brother and see Man Utd dispose of Spurs in the FA cup yesterday. Did the washing up this morning, but nothing major to report…

  5. steffi suhr says:

    See? Bustling. There’s something to be said for it.

  6. Heather Etchevers says:

    A wonderful post, Stephen. It hits quite precisely on my own feelings of ambivalence. Part of these come from the Groucho Marx school of greatness: if I could be great, then it wouldn’t really be great, would it? Because there are always those other examples I can see, some of whom are contemporaneous, and they really are great. (And there are both a living Nobelist and a prolific inventor in my family, which sets the bar quite high).
    The bit about single-minded dedication also reminded me of the advice that is often proferred to aspiring novelists – the message being that it is worth (whatever temporary sacrifice) – because you can do it. But what if you have given up that family life, among other things, only to find that you couldn’t (or didn’t – luck having a part in achievement as admitted even by Hammond)?
    The moral for me, when I thought about it, was that I would rather achieve some lesser but concrete goals, earlier, than to stake everything on extremely delayed gratification.

  7. Stephen Curry says:

    I’m intrigued Heather – is your Nobelist relative of a scientific bent? If so, have you ever discussed approaches to science and/or greatness?
    And I feel duty-bound to point out that Richard Hammond, considered great by some, is that mad, drive-like-a-maniac bloke from Top Gear! 😉

  8. Henry Gee says:

    Sure, Hamming might be right, but I’ve always been struck by people who seem to be ‘great’ as well as having a family life and other interests. Feynman and his bongos and practical jokes. Einstein and his violin. Newton and his … er … alchemy. And Mr Darwin, well, he was interested in everything, and one could say that it was his ability to synthesize coherent schemes from a mass of disparate information was the mark of his particular greatness. Ernst Mayr and Steve Gould were much the same. Perhaps real evolutionary biologists have a different kind of greatness, compared with that enjoyed by technicians drones molcular biologists?

  9. Heather Etchevers says:

    Yes, the relative in question is a scientist. He is still a professor, though I presume emeritus at age 93, and one of the former Bell labs coterie. And he was very happily married, though I had the impression upon meeting his wife that her support was much of the type that Steffi mentioned. Full and unconditional and perhaps somewhat at her own expense as far as personal ambition was concerned. I’m quite sure she thinks it was worth it. There are children and grandchildren, and for the longest time he was an avid small aircraft pilot. So my impression was that greatness does not preclude outside interests. But I don’t know what he was like in the pre-Nobel era.
    In 2002, during a lecture, he stated,

    Frequently people believe that science is somehow primarily created by lone scientists thinking hard, which creates new science and ideas. There is a little truth in that. But especially today, the rapid growth of science and of technology depends a great deal on the interaction between people, the trading of their personal ideas, and interdisciplinary interactions. What I would call the sociology of science and technology is very important to their rapid and successful growth. Another aspect which is very important is a sense of openness and willingness to explore.

    Another appreciable quote:

    […]We worked on it hard. Nobody […] seemed really interested. People would come into my laboratory, I would explain what we were doing, but nobody else wanted to try. For two years we worked on it and hadn’t succeeded. Well, at that point the head of the department, […] and the former head of the department […] both of whom have won Nobel prizes, came into my office, sat down, and said, “Look, that’s not going to work. We know it’s not going to work. You know it’s not going to work. You have got to stop. You are wasting the University’s money”. Well, I […] thought it had a good chance of working. Also, I had tenure. You see, tenure in a University means you can’t be fired because somebody doesn’t agree with you. So I simply told them […] I was going to continue. They were not pleased.

    Google research will find it for you, but I claim no credit for having been born into his remote family. If you do, page 14 shows how even undisputedly great scientists can be even scientifically narrow-minded. So greatness is very much a matter of definition.

  10. Stephen Curry says:

    @Henry – your distinction between evolutionary and molecular biologists is species specious, though I’m guessing it was deliberately calculated to provoke! And your fossil record of greats is incomplete; in the sense that it’s not clear how successful these guys were at combining science with other interests. Newton, I fancy, might have regarded alchemy as just another facet of his scientific interests, even if he didn’t advertise it too widely.
    The interesting distinction is perhaps between scientists of a more theoretical bent and those who spend most of their time in the lab, getting on with experiments. The theorists perhaps naturally spend more time just thinking. In a field that I know to some degree, there is perhaps an interesting comparison to be made between Francis Crick and Max Perutz. Both made important contributions to the crystallographic method but, whereas Crick was a deep and insightful thinker, Perutz might be characterised as more of a plodder (though by God was he tenacious!). I think it’s fair to say that Crick’s contributions are more wide-ranging and that he might be considered greater. I’m more Perutzian.

  11. Stephen Curry says:

    @Heather – this is really fascinating stuff! I agree very much with the first quotation; there are, of course, many paths to greatness (grasshopper).
    The second shows that he had courage in spades, even if he did have tenure. That must have been a really tough couple of years, to work without results.
    If I’ve made the correct connection, I see that his wife wrote a book about her experiences. Still looking for the book that has the interesting page 14…

  12. steffi suhr says:

    LOL – I love the title of the book, Stephen and Heather! How many of our spouses could imagine their own picture on a book cover like that, I wonder? 🙂

  13. Heather Etchevers says:

    @Stephen: that’s the one, but I didn’t know that his wife had written a book! Must order. Linked here – if you really want a reprint, I’ll send one on if you don’t have access.
    @Steffi – not mine, that’s for certain! Or we’d have to co-author.

  14. Stephen Curry says:

    @Heather – A reprint would be great if you have it. And don’t forget to post a review once you’ve read his wife’s book!

  15. Heather Etchevers says:

    Ok – reprint sent, Book review (once read) right after the review of Jenny’s book that I’ve somehow promised, right after the rest of the stuff that I’m usually panicking about, but possibly before the two blog posts for which fifteen tabs have been open and re-opened in my browser the last six weeks…

  16. Stephen Curry says:

    Excuses, excuses…* 😉
    For upcoming posts I keep track of links I’ll need in a temporary ‘Blog posts’ folder that is listed in the Bookmarks bar on my browser. Saves having to worry about keeping all those tabs open.