Tuesday, January 24, 2006

You and Your Research, by Richard Hamming

Richard Hamming was a great Mathematician and Computer Scientist. There is something about great people that makes them great. The following talk that he delivered at Bellcore in 1986 encapsulates many of those attributes. Fundamentally, he suggests that you ask yourself three questions:

1. What are the most important problems in your field?
2. Are you working on one of them?
3. Why not?

In other words, his question is "What's the best thing you could be working on, and why aren't you?" It is such a slap-in-the-face question, that most of the people would shy away from it. And for good reason- the other alternative is so much tougher. The rest realize that the other alternative is more fruitful, so what if it is tough? The latter are the achievers, the ambitious, the courageous, the famous and the uber-rich. Every famous scientist, businessman, politician has done just that- identified the most important problems in their field and worked on some of them 'diligently'. To me, the appeal of his talk is that it applies to Nobel Prize winning scientists as well as to more ordinary folks who want to excel in their careers.

Read it. I strongly recommend you read it all (it is pretty big) no matter over how many days:


Thanks Richard for sharing such valuable stuff (I hope he gets my thanks in heaven), and thanks Paul for sharing it with all of us.


  1. Hi, Tavnveer:
    (This is GSC, posting anonymously, as I can't seem to figure out any other way)

    I've been spending some time with postings at your blog. I want to refer to two amongst several excellent references provided there:

    1) Six Dumbest Ideas in Computer Security - there's a whole lot of good stuff here that deserves solid follow-up. One of them is a reference to Feynman's "Personal Observations on the Reliability of the Space Shuttle" - the conclusion of which says: " For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled." How very, VERY true! - but, alas, in most of what's going on in societal life today, PR always takes precedence over reality, and the results of this we are reaping daily. How to overcome this societal trend? I can't say for sure (as evidently this has not yet been done), but I would postulate that the OPMS approach is one way to accomplish this urgent task. How to get the OPMS approach widely seen and used? I've not resolved this urgent need, either!

    2) Another outstanding piece you have referred to is Richard Hamming's "You And Your Research", - he asks the question: " - I had known of these ideas of his, but I had not previously seen it, and I'm delighted to get this for my library. I think I shall use this in entirely (or at leasst develop some structures from it, with needed commentary) in the proposed OPMS book. As you note at your blog, he had the researchers in his audience to ask themselves three significant questions:

    1. What are the most important problems in your field?
    2. Are you working on one of them?
    3. Why not?

    These are in fact more or less universal questions, and I suspect that a great deal of stuff that goes on in this world is just PR, not anything significant at all (see Item 1 above)! So - how to get over all of this huge debility that seems to afflict us almost universally?

    If we can actually start acting on this question, we should achieve somethng worthwhile.