You and your research

Until last friday I had no idea who Richard Hamming was.

I got a link to a transcript of a talk given by him from Marius Eriksen’s homepage, along with another essay, but chance made me pick up Hamming’s words first.

Hamming essentially sets out to answer one simple question:

Why do so few scientists make significant contributions to science and so many are forgotten in the long run? What is the difference between those who do and those who might’ve done?

The talk is filled with war stories from his time in Bell Laboratories and it’s really worth to be read — I won’t spoil it here. However, there was one theme which really struck a chord with me (slightly adapted from the original):

Some people are unable to ask themselves “What are the important problems in my field?”.

If you do not work on important problems, it’s unlikely that you’ll do important work.

You can’t always know exactly where to be, but you can keep active in places where something might happen. You should be concerned with next year’s problems, not just the ones in front of your face. If you really believe the action is somewhere else, why don’t you go in that direction?

Find your important problems and work on them.

If you do not work on important problems, it’s unlikely that you’ll do important work.

Another video version of the talk is also available on youtube.

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