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You and Your Research - Tao Xie

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You and Your Research
Slides Made Based on RichardW.Hamming’s TalkTranscription@
Tao XieUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaigntaoxie@illinois.edu
Characteristic of great scientists: “usually when they were young they had independent thoughts and had the courage to pursue them””Luckfavors the prepared mind.” - Pasteur“Ifothers would think as hard as I did, then they would get similar results.” - Newton“Isit luck that[Einstein] finallycreated special relativity? Early on, he had laid down some of the pieces by thinking of the fragments. Now that's the necessary but not sufficient condition. All of these items I will talk about are both luck and not luck.”
Characteristic of great scientists: “having courage”“Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can. If you think you can't, almost surely you are not going to.”“They will go forward under incredible circumstances; they think and continue to think.”
“They always are saying that you have got to do it when you are young or you will never do it.”“In the first place if you do some good work you will find yourself on all kinds of committees and unable to do any more work.”“When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems.”
Working Conditions
“What most people think are the best working conditions, are not. Very clearly they are not because people are often most productive when working conditions are bad.”“I finally said to myself, ``Hamming, you think the machines can do practically everything. Why can't you make them write programs?'' What appeared at first to me as a defect forced me into automatic programming very early. What appears to be a fault, often, by a change of viewpoint, turns out to be one of the greatest assets you can have. But you are not likely to think that when you first look the thing and say, ``Gee, I'm never going to get enough programmers, so how can I ever do any great programming?'‘”
Working Conditions – cont.
“I think that if you look carefully you will see that often the great scientists, by turning the problem around a bit, changed a defect to an asset. For example, 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.”
Characteristic of great scientists: “havingtremendous drive”“Well I went storming intoBode'soffice and said, ``How can anybody my age know as much as JohnTukeydoes?'' He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, ``You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.'' I simply slunk out of the office!”``Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.''- Bode“Giventwo people of approximately the same ability and one person who works10% morethan the other, the latter will more than twiceoutproducethe former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity - it is very much like compound interest.”
Drive + “Intelligently Applied”
”Geniusis 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” – Edison“The steady application of effort with a little bit more work,intelligently appliedis what does it. That's the trouble; drive, misapplied, doesn't get you anywhere.”“Themisapplication of effort is a very serious matter. Just hard work is not enough - it must be applied sensibly.”
“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.”
Ambiguity – cont.
“Darwinwrites 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. Great contributions are rarely done by adding another decimal place. It comes down to an emotional commitment. Most great scientists are completely committed to their problem. Those who don't become committed seldom produce outstanding, first-class work.”
Emotional CommitmentSubconscious
“Everybody who has studied creativity is driven finally to saying, ``creativity comes out of your subconscious.'' Somehow, suddenly, there it is. It just appears.”“Ifyou are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there's the answer. ”“So the way to manage yourself is that when you have a real important problem you don't let anything else get the center of your attention - you keep your thoughts on the problem. Keep your subconscious starved so it has to workonyourproblem, so you can sleep peacefully and get the answer in the morning, free.”
WorkonImportant Problem
“Whatimportant problems are you working on?”“Whatare the important problems in[your] field?”“Ifwhat you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?”
Work on Important Problem – cont.
“We didn't work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack. 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.”“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.”
Work on Important Problem – cont.
“evenif 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.”
GreatThoughts Time
“When I went to lunch Friday noon, I would only discuss great thoughts after that. By great thoughts I mean ones like: ``What will be the role of computers in all of AT&T?'', ``How will computers change science?'‘”“I saw that computers were transforming science because I spent a lot of time asking ``What will be the impact of computers on science and how can I change it?'' I asked myself, ``How is it going to change Bell Labs?'‘”“I thought hard about where was my field going, where were the opportunities, and what were the important things to do. Let me go there so there is a chance I can do important things.”
Ideas for Solving Problems
“Most great scientists know many important problems. They have something between 10 and 20 important problems for which they are looking for an attack. And when they see a new idea come up, one hears them say ``Well that bears on this problem.'' They drop all the other things and get after it.”“The great scientists, when an opportunity opens up, get after it and they pursue it. They drop all other things. They get rid of other things and they get after an idea because they had already thought the thing through. Their minds are prepared; they see the opportunity and they go after it. Now of course lots of times it doesn't work out, but you don't have to hit many of them to do some great science. It's kind of easy. One of the chief tricks is to live a long time!”
Open vs. Closed Door
“ifyou have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance.”“He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important.”“there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing - not much, but enough that they missfame.”
Way of Doing Research
“Itain'twhat you do, it's the way that you do it.”“And I realized that in truth the problem was not just to get the answer; it was to demonstrate for the first time, and beyond question, that I could beat the analog computer on its own ground with a digital machine. I reworked the method of solution, created a theory which was nice and elegant, and changed the way we computed the answer; the results were no different.”“By changing the problem slightly, I did important work rather than trivial work.”[Annotation: Digging out general ideas/fundamentals of the concrete work]
Way of DoingResearch – cont.
“``No, I should be in the mass production of a variable product. I should be concerned withallof next year's problems, not just the one in front of my face.'‘”“Bychanging the question I still got the same kind of results or better, but I changed things and did important work. I attacked the major problemHowdo I conquer machines and do all of next year's problems when I don't know what they are going to be?Howdo I prepare for it?Howdo I do this one so I'll be on top of it?…”
Way of DoingResearch – cont.
“You should do your job in such a fashion that others can build on top of it, so they will indeed say, ``Yes, I've stood on so andso'sshoulders and I saw further.''[Annotation: inspiring others]“Theessence of science is cumulative. By changing a problem slightly you can often do great work rather than merely good work. Instead of attacking isolated problems, I made the resolution that I would never again solve an isolated problem except as characteristic of a class.”
Generalization and Abstraction
“Now if you are much of a mathematician you know that the effort to generalize often means that the solution is simple. Often by stopping and saying, ``This is the problem he wants but this is characteristic of so and so. Yes, I can attack the whole class with a far superior method than the particular one because I was earlier embedded in needless detail.'' The business of abstraction frequently makes things simple. Furthermore, I filed away the methods and prepared for the future problems.”
Generalization and Abstraction – cont.
“``It is a poor workman who blames his tools - the good man gets on with the job, given what he's got, and gets the best answer he can.''“AndI suggest that by altering the problem, by looking at the thing differently, you can make a great deal of difference in your final productivity because you can either do it in such a fashion that people can indeed build on what you've done, or you can do it in such a fashion that the next person has to essentially duplicate again what you've done.Itisn't just a matter of the job, it's the way youwrite the report, the way youwrite the paper, the whole attitude. It's just as easy to doa broad, general jobas one very special case. And it's much more satisfying and rewarding!”
Selling – Why?
“itis not sufficient to do a job, you have to sellit”“But the fact is everyone is busy with their own work. You must present it so well that they will set aside what they are doing, look at what you've done, read it, and come back and say, ``Yes, that was good.''”“You had better write your report so when it is published in the Physical Review, or wherever else you want it, as the readers are turning the pages they won't just turn your pages but they will stop and read yours. If they don't stop and read it, you won't get credit.”[Annotation: That is why publishing in highly visible venues helps]
Selling – How?
“You have to learn to write clearly and well so that people will read it”“you must learn to give reasonably formaltalks”“youalso must learn to give informaltalks”Bad: `backroomscientists‘:“Ina conference, they would keep quiet. Three weeks later after a decision was made they filed a report saying why you should do so and so. Well, it was too late.”They should have “[stood]up right in the middle of a hot conference, in the middle of activity, and say, ``We should do this for these reasons.''”
Selling – How to Give Technical Talks
“Thetechnical person wants to give a highly limited technical talk. Most of the time the audience wants a broad general talk and wants much more survey and background than the speaker is willing to give.”Bad: “Thespeaker names a topic and suddenly plunges into the details he's solved. Few people in the audience may follow.” ”Thetendency is to give a highly restricted, safe talk; this is usually ineffective. Furthermore, many talks are filled with far too much information.”Good: “Youshould paint a general picture to say why it's important, and then slowly give a sketch of what was done. Then a larger number of people will say, ``Yes, Joe has done that,'' or ``Mary has done that; I really see where it is; yes, Mary really gave a good talk; I understand what Mary has done.''
Educating Your Boss
“Now you might tell me you haven't got control over what you have to work on. Well, when you first begin, you may not. But once you're moderately successful, there are more people asking for results than you can deliver and you have some power of choice, but not completely.”Direct way: “Onelesson was sufficient to educate my boss as to why I didn't want to do big jobs that displaced exploratory research and why I was justified in not doing crash jobs which absorb all the research computing facilities.”Indirect way: “Every time I had to tell some scientist in some other area, ``No I can't; I haven't the machine capacity,'' he complained. I said ``Go tellyourVice President that Hamming needs more computing capacity.'' After a while I could see what was happening up there at the top; many people said to my Vice President, ``Your man needs more computing capacity.'' I got it!”Accumulate evidence: “Iwaited a couple of years. I then went through a year of BSTJ articles and counted what fraction thanked some programmer. I took it into the boss and said, ``That's the central role computing is playing in Bell Labs; if the BSTJ is important, that's how important computing is.'' He had to give in.”
Worth Being a Great Scientist?
“``Yes, doing really first-class work, and knowing it, is as good as wine,women/menand song put together,'‘”“And if you look at the bosses, they tend to come back or ask for reports, trying to participate in those moments of discovery. They're always in the way.”“I have never dared to go out and ask those who didn't do great work how they felt about the matter. It's a biased sample, but I still think it is worth the struggle.”“thevalue is in thestrugglemore than it is in the result. The struggle to make something of yourself seems to be worthwhile in itself. The success and fame are sort ofdividends”
Failure Analysis: Lack of Drive/Commitment
“The people who do great work with less ability but who are committed to it, get more done that those who have great skill and dabble in it, who work during the day and go home and do other things and come back and work the next day. They don't have the deep commitment that is apparently necessary for really first-class work. They turn out lots of good work, but we were talking, remember, about first-class work.”“Good people, very talented people, almost always turn out good work. We're talking about the outstanding work, the type of work that gets the Nobel Prize and gets recognition.”
Failure Analysis: Personality DefectsFail to Work with the System
“The secretary said, ``Of course I can't help him; I don't get his mail. He won't give me the stuff to log in; I don't know where he puts it on the floor. Of course I can't help him.'' So I went to him and said, ``Look, if you adopt the present method and do what you can do single-handedly, you can go just that far and no farther than you can do single-handedly. If you will learn to work with the system, you can go as far as the system will support you.'‘”“He had his personality defect of wanting total control and was not willing to recognize that you need the support of the system.”
Failure Analysis: Personality DefectsFail to Work with theSystem – cont.
“good scientists will fight the system rather than learn to work with the system and take advantage of all the system has to offer.”“It takes patience, but you can learn how to use the system pretty well, and you can learn how to get around it.”“After all, if you want a decision `No', you just go to your boss and get a `No' easy. If you want to do something, don't ask, do it. Present him with an accomplished fact. Don't give him a chance to tell you `No'. But if you want a `No', it's easy to get a `No'.”[Annotation: Similar situations when students work with the advisor]
Failure Analysis: Personality DefectsEgo Assertion
“Iwasn't dressing the way they felt somebody in that situation should. It came down to just that - I wasn't dressing properly. I had to make the decision - was I going to assert my ego and dress the way I wanted to and have it steadily drain my effort from my professional life, or was I going to appear to conform better? I decided I would make an effort to appear to conform properly.The moment I did, I got much better service.”“An enormous number of scientists feel they must assert their ego and do their thing their way.”“``Theappearance of conforminggets you a long way.'‘”“If you chose to assert your ego in any number of ways, ``I am going to do it my way,'' you pay a small steady price throughout the whole of your professional career.”“Byrealizing you have to use the system and studying how to get the system to do your work, you learn how to adapt the system to your desires. Or you can fight it steadily, as a small undeclared war, for the whole of your life.”
Reform vs. Adapt to the System
“I am not saying you shouldn't make gestures of reform. I am saying that my study of able people is that they don't get themselvescommittedto that kind of warfare. They play it a little bit and drop it and get on with their work.”“Many a second-rate fellow gets caught up in some little twitting of the system, and carries it through to warfare. He expends his energy in a foolish project. Now you are going to tell me that somebody has to change the system. I agree; somebody's has to. Which do you want to be? The person who changes the system or the person who does first-class science? Which person is it that you want to be?”“Very few of you have the ability to both reform the systemandbecome a first-class scientist.”“On the other hand, we can't always give in. There are times when a certain amount of rebellion is sensible. I have observed almost all scientists enjoy a certain amount of twitting the system for the sheer love of it.”“I'm not against all ego assertion; I'm against some.”
Failure Analysis: Personality DefectsAnger
“Often a scientist becomes angry, and this is no way to handle things. Amusement, yes, anger, no. Anger is misdirected. You should follow and cooperate rather than struggle against the system all the time.”
Failure Analysis: Personality DefectsLook at Negative Sides of Things
“given the situation, by changing the way I looked at it, I converted what was apparently a defect to an asset.”“I am an egotisticalperson”“I used my ego to make myself behave the way I wanted to. I bragged about something so I'd have to perform.”“I have found that it paid to say, ``Oh yes, I'll get the answer for you Tuesday,'' not having any idea how to do it. By Sunday night I was really hard thinking on how I was going to deliver by Tuesday.”“I often put my pride on the line and sometimes I failed, but as I said, like a cornered rat I'm surprised how often I did a good job.”“Ithink you need to learn to use yourself. I think you need to know how to convert a situation from one view to another which would increase the chance of success.”[Annotation: My advisor’s experience in student advising]
Failure Analysis: Personality DefectsMany Alibis/Lack of Honest to Yourself
“Now self-delusion in humans is very, very common. There are enumerable ways of you changing a thing and kidding yourself and making it look some other way.”“When you ask, ``Why didn't you do such and such,'' the person has a thousand alibis.”“usually these days there are 10 people right there ready, and we pay off for the person who is there first. The other nine fellows say, ``Well, I had the idea but I didn't do it and so on and so on.'' There are so many alibis. Why weren't you first? Why didn't you do it right? Don't try an alibi. Don't try and kid yourself. You can tell other people all the alibis you want. I don't mind. But to yourself try to be honest.”
Failure Analysis: Personality DefectsMany Alibis/Lack of Honest to Yourself
“If you really want to be a first-class scientist you need to know yourself, your weaknesses, your strengths, and your bad faults, like my egotism. How can you convert a fault to an asset? How can you convert a situation where you haven't got enough manpower to move into a direction when that's exactly what you need to do?”“thesuccessful scientist changed the viewpoint and what was a defect became an asset.”
“why so many people who have greatness within their grasp don'tsucceedtheydon't work on important problems,theydon't become emotionally involved,theydon't try and change what is difficult to some other situation which is easily done but is still important, andtheykeep giving themselves alibis why they don't. They keep saying that it is a matter of luck.”“I've told you how easy it is; furthermore I've told you how to reform. Therefore, go forth and become great scientists!”





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You and Your Research - Tao Xie