Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough


Someone sent me an email link to Richard Hamming’s (1986) “You and Your Research”, which I have read previously, but not for some time. The piece analyses why a few scientists manage to make significant contributions to their field, while the rest of us… not so much… ;-P

A few people have suggested to me recently that my trajectory seems to be pointing in the not-so-much direction, giving the receipt of this link at this moment a somewhat timely quality that might not have been intended… ;-P Perhaps re-reading will give me a sense of what I’m missing… ;-P

For those who haven’t read it, the piece begins with a dismissal of easy explanations for significant scientific discovery – luck, for example, or base intelligence. Hamming focuses instead on traits like courage, confidence, emotional commitment, drive, hard work, salesmanship, ability to work strategically within established institutional and cultural contexts, etc. – all of which one would expect to have a substantial impact.

He also, though, analyses some less expected factors, such as the interesting dynamics that follow on from early fame: the way in which recognition gained too quickly creates both external and internal pressures that undermine someone’s ability to work on the small and obscure problems that often lay the groundwork for grand concepts.

He talks about the role of frustration – of the absence of “ideal” circumstances – as a driver for creative thought:

…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. So ideal working conditions are very strange. The ones you want aren’t always the best ones for you.

And draws attention to the issue of how tolerance for ambiguity factors into research:

There’s another trait on the side which I want to talk about; that trait is ambiguity. It took me a while to discover its importance. Most people like to believe something is or is not true. Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well. They believe the theory enough to go ahead; they doubt it enough to notice the errors and faults so they can step forward and create the new replacement theory. If you believe too much you’ll never notice the flaws; if you doubt too much you won’t get started. It requires a lovely balance. But most great scientists are well aware of why their theories are true and they are also well aware of some slight misfits which don’t quite fit and they don’t forget it. Darwin writes in his autobiography that he found it necessary to write down every piece of evidence which appeared to contradict his beliefs because otherwise they would disappear from his mind. When you find apparent flaws you’ve got to be sensitive and keep track of those things, and keep an eye out for how they can be explained or how the theory can be changed to fit them. Those are often the great contributions.

The point for which this talk is most famous, however, is one of these beautiful, obvious, simple points:

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. Let me warn you, “important problem” must be phrased carefully… It’s not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack. That is what makes a problem important. When I say that most scientists don’t work on important problems, I mean it in that sense. The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important and he also doesn’t believe that they will lead to important problems.

I spoke earlier about planting acorns so that oaks will grow. 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. But the average scientist does routine safe work almost all the time and so he (or she) doesn’t produce much. It’s that simple. If you want to do great work, you clearly must work on important problems, and you should have an idea.

6 responses to “Distinction

  1. Joseph Kugelmass December 23, 2006 at 8:44 pm

    What a wonderful post! The quote from Hamming is one of those bulwarks that helps preserve the self-consciousness of passion: Is this thought the kind of thought for which I began my research? I try to listen to my own voice, re-read my own writing, for traces of the kind of squeaky, faux-humorous resignation which isn’t real humor (real humor is the recuperation of an actual failure in the present) and which excuses a slide into a self-loathing unimportance.

    Whenever I use the word “just” (“Right now I’m just reading…”), I immediately throw the whole project and all related books into the fire and move to a different city.

  2. N Pepperell December 24, 2006 at 6:53 am

    LOL! Well, now at least I’ll know what’s happened if you make a sudden, mysterious exit…

    I love your gloss on the concept of humour: “the recuperation of an actual failure in the present”. I’ll have to remember that…

    I do like the Hamming piece – although I’m quite vexed to learn that he thinks it a very bad idea to work with one’s office door closed, as I’ve been adopting this habit recently. Is it sufficient for greatness, do you think, that the door to my blog always remains open? ;-P

  3. Edward Yates December 27, 2006 at 3:59 pm

    I like a lot of the ideas in this post. And I often find myself working on things that I know I can do rather than the central problem of my thesis. The trouble is developing that “reasonable attack” to an important problem which is alluding me presently.

    And yes that does seem sufficient reasoning to keep your door closed some of the time, while your blog is open 24/7! πŸ˜‰ Could that be covered under the “reasonable attack” part of his writing?

    Merry Christmas!

  4. N Pepperell December 28, 2006 at 8:31 am

    Hey there you! My problem, I suspect, is more fundamental: that the central ideas in my thesis are in no danger of being confused with the central problems in my field… πŸ˜‰ (Although I’m simultaneously in considerable – and possibly growing – danger of having no idea what my field is… Can one know the central questions, when the field itself is in doubt?)

    Reasonable attacks are generally what I aim for through the blog… ;-P

    If you happen to be around and about over the next couple of weeks, I’d like to share my dilemma of the moment – perhaps over coffee in our usual shadowy, subterranean haunt… (Sounds more like Halloween than Christmas, when I put it that way…)

    Hope you’re having a wonderful holiday!

  5. Edward Yates December 28, 2006 at 11:03 pm

    Hey back!

    Dropped by to “JUST” say hi. So hi! πŸ˜‰

    Actually after I wrote that post this morning, after waking up at 5:30 I was taking more notes from text – mechanical type work that I make myself do when I doubt I’m capable of anything else – and wrote one really nice paragraph in relation to my research. I decided that I liked that so much in relation to my research I cut and paste it into a new document. Then I thought of something else, and another thing, and before I knew it I had rewritten the front end of chapter 1 and FINALLY come up with a capital T thesis! Huzzah!

    Although it is probably too early to call, but I think I’m back writing and going to finally get down to the complete end to end re-write.

    Thank you for the Christmas wishes. I hope that your ‘break’ like my ‘break’ also goes well! (notice my cunning use of inverted commas to signal that us silly PhD students don’t really have breaks, just time when we are working on the thesis directly and time that we are not. I am probably going to be in sometime after the 3rd of January I think. Will email for coffee.

  6. N Pepperell December 29, 2006 at 6:09 pm

    I have this vision of sending you an electronic pic of a coffee mug or something – emailing for coffee… ;-P If you’re in a writing phase, don’t come into campus unnecessarily – sometimes it pays to hole up somewhere and not get distracted with other people’s stuff. My “stuff” (if I can borrow that handy scare quotes technique of yours… ;-P) can certainly wait…

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