This is part of my short series on the thinkers, leaders and craftsmen and women featured in Developing Modern Craft (pending publication late 2019). Here you will find a short introduction to Richard “Dick” Hamming, featured work, three exercises/lessons from him (and ways to apply them), as well as a selection of quotes. You can also read more about the Look to Craftsmen Project if you are not familiar with the work and check out Profiles in Craft for examples of people applying craft principles in the modern world.
Richard “Dick” Hamming is one of the great minds of the 20th century. He was a longtime resident of Monterrey, California, is perhaps best known for his work on numerical methods, automatic coding systems, and error-detecting and error-correcting codes impacting projects of worldwide significance, from The Manhattan Project to nearly all of the Bell Laboratories’ most prominent achievements. His mathematical formulas allow computers to correct their own errors, making possible such innovations as modems, compact disks, satellite communications, and machine learning.
‘‘If you don’t work on important problems, it’s not likely that you’ll do important work,’’ was a favorite maxim of Hamming’s, and he noted that his discoveries were the high point of his life. ‘‘The emotion at the point of technical breakthrough is better than wine, women and song put together,’’ he said.
Hamming was an effective spokesman representing the user community in computing, particularly toward getting better human-machine interfaces through better languages, operating systems and programming practices. He had a central role in the development of computer and computing science, and contributed significantly to the area of information science, which includes his error-correcting codes. His codes, filters, and methods became indispensable parts of the digital engineer’s tool kit. ‘‘We were first-class troublemakers,’’ said Hamming. ‘‘We did unconventional things in unconventional ways and still got valuable results. Thus, management had to tolerate us and let us alone a lot of the time.’’
As a person Hamming was never dull. He had strong opinions, and he liked to express them. His voice comes through in his books in a way that few technical authors achieve. He liked to give people advice, especially young people, whom he would educate and entertain with his often-repeated lecture “You and Your Research”. He enjoyed the speaker’s platform, and on occasion he enjoyed, as he jokingly said, “hamming” with a small h.
Hamming cautioned that “the purpose of computation is insight, not numbers” suggesting that “a good theoretician can account for almost any result that is produced, right or wrong,” which makes it important to be able to tell if we have a sensible answer. In the end, there is still no substitute for Hamming’s emphasis on common-sense thinking.
“Courage, or confidence, is a property to develop in yourself. Look at your successes, and pay less attention to failures than you are usually advised to do in the expression, “Learn from your mistakes”. The courage to continue is essential since great research often has long periods with no success and many discouragements.”
Besides his work in computing, information science and a variety of contributions to his professional associations, Richard is known for his fluent, multidisciplinary mind. Trained as a engineer during World War II and after 30 years at Bell Labs, Hamming transitioned to writing and teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School.
His insights on computer science, learning, and life are unique, rare, and correct with unusual consistency. Speeches and writings made long ago stand up in their logic and validity today as much as when they were written, given their basis in the deeply fundamental wisdom of the world.
Adopting the “Hamming” approach to thinking is difficult, as is imitating any genius, but utilizing its core tenets will very quickly begin to remove the cobwebs from your mind. Given our increasing reliance on data, in the form of artificial intelligence and machine learning, is driving much of our behavior through phone apps, social media conditioning, and an increasing reliance on gadgets, Hamming’s maxims for and warnings to users are more important than ever before.
Numerical Methods for Scientists and Engineers, McGrawHill, 1962; 2nd ed. 1973; Dover reprint 1985; translated into Russian.
Calculus and the Computer Revolution, Houghton-Mifflin, 1968. Introduction to Applied Numerical Analysis, McGraw-Hill, 1971.
Computers and Society, McGraw-Hill, 1972. Digital Filters, Prentice-Hall, 1977; 2nd ed. 1983; 3rd ed. 1989; translated into several European languages.
Coding and Information Theory, Prentice-Hall, 1980; 2nd ed. 1986.
Methods of Mathematics Applied to Calculus, Probability and Statistics, Prentice-Hall, 1985.
The Art of Probability for Scientists and Engineers, AddisonWesley, 1991.
The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn, Gordon and Breach, 1997.
Speeches & Videos
Hamming is not an easy speaker to listen to but there are nuggets in his lectures. He talks about and is attempting to describe qualities that helped him become successful, and qualities he’s observed in others’ success. These are three of his more popular lectures.
Learning to Learn” by Richard Hamming – In 1995, Hamming spoke at the Naval Postgraduate School, offering some of his most incisive, cutting, and original thoughts while introducing his last work from the Introduction of The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn.
You and Your Research (and Career) —This lecture was originally delivered to graduate students at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California, on June 6, 1995. The lecture was the last lecture of a capstone course taught by Dr. Richard Hamming called “The Art of Doing Science and Engineering.”
Creativity — Creativity, originality, novelty, and such words are regarded as "good things," and we often fail to distinguish between them - indeed we find them hard to define. Surely we do not need three words with exactly the same meaning; hence we should try to differentiate somewhat between them as we try to define them. Delivered to graduate students at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California, on May 23, 1995.
Suggested Reading on Dick Hamming
The Prepared Mind: How to Approach Craft: (article featured on Medium) highlights of Hamming’s 1986 lecture You and Your Research.
3 LESSONS FROM HAMMING
MAINTAIN TENSION WITH AMBIGUITY
“Great thinkers both believe and disbelieve. It took me a long, long while to discover this. I'd been studying I'd say 15 or 20 years before I realized [the importance of] tolerating ambiguity. Most people want to believe something is true or it isn't true. Great scientists believe the theory is true enough so they continue working, because if you know a theory is true, you won't. They disbelieve enough to notice what's wrong and make the big change to the new theory. If you believe the theory is right you won't make the big change to the next new theory. You won't make the big step forward. You'll merely elaborate and extend the old theory and that won't make you a great scientist. That’ll make you just a good one, which I'm not complaining about but greatness consists of seeing what other people have missed, seizing the contradictions and making the new step forward. You have to tolerate ambiguity.”
LEARN TO INVERT PROBLEMS, THINKING STYLE MATTERS
It’s the style of what you do that makes the difference. It's inverting the problem. Look at special relativity. Others had said it all before. But Einstein said it the right way. When you first do a thing it is often muddled up. One of your problems is to get it clear so it can be communicated to other people.”
BE DELIBERATE ABOUT YOUR PRACTICE
“The Good Life is not the life of pleasure from moment to moment. And you know it. The fact you are well aware that you cannot get up in the morning and say, I shall be happy today and make it work. The Good Life has to be snuck up upon. And I'm saying with an opinion of myself and many other books. The way to do that is to take yourself on hand and manage yourself to be the person you wish to be to achieve the goals you wish, and be more articulate than just idle drifting like a drunken sailor.”
QUOTES BY HAMMING
“You might as well lead a life you would like to have. I suggest you a live a life of doing something significant by your definition.”
“The purpose of computation is insight, not numbers.”
“If you don’t work on important problems, it’s not likely that you’ll do important work.”
“It is better to do the right problem the wrong way than the wrong problem the right way. “
“It is not easy to become an educated person.”
“You can't get humans to be freed from boredom. Machines don't know what the word is.”
“Personnel problems dominate management. There are all kinds of trouble with people. With machines there are no pensions. There are no personal squabbles, two machines don't get squabbling with other.”
“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.”
“With one life to lead, you ought to do more than just get by.”
“Everybody pretty much agrees that it's not the achievement or the goal [that matters]. The best part is the struggle. The struggle to success is what makes you what you will be.”
“Remember, in your old age, you have to live with yourself. There's no escaping life with yourself, your old age, you're stuck with yourself. And in old age you can't change much as you can when you're younger. Consider the kind of person you wish to be in your old age and start now being that kind of a person.”
“Beware of finding what you’re looking for.”
“The Good Life is not the life of pleasure from moment to moment. You cannot get up in the morning and say, ‘I shall be happy today and make it work.’ The Good Life has to be snuck up upon. The way [to a Good Life] is to take yourself on hand and manage yourself to be the person you wish to be, to achieve the goals you wish, and be more articulate than just idle drifting like a drunken sailor.”
“On the intellectual side, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein are examples who people who had they died in their youth, the world would be rather different. So individuals do matter.”
“God or nature didn't make you to be a reliable thing. You've been walking for years and still every now and then you trip and stumble. You can't do anything really reliable. That's why man ended up at the top of the heap. He has the flexibility built in. But don't ever try to get humans do something reliable.“
“There is no reliable report of what happened in the past. It's what's has come down to is accepted.”
“Would you please remember that what made you great is not appropriate for the next generation.”
“There's going to be four times as much knowledge for your poor child to face. Now you remember when you hit college, how much there seemed to be? Don't be surprised if your children are somewhat more disoriented than you were.”
“I need to discuss science vs. engineering. Put glibly:
In science if you know what you are doing you should not be doing it.
In engineering if you do not know what you are doing you should not be doing it.”
“The applications of knowledge, especially mathematics, reveal the unity of all knowledge. In a new situation almost anything and everything you ever learned might be applicable, and the artificial divisions seem to vanish.”
“Vicarious learning from the experiences of others saves making errors yourself, but I regard the study of successes as being basically more important than the study of failures. There are so many ways of being wrong and so few of being right, studying successes is more efficient.”
“Newton said, ‘If I have seen further than others, it is because I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants.’ These days we stand on each other’s feet!”
“What you learn from others you can use to follow.
What you learn for yourself you can use to lead.”
“When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. This is what did Shannon in. After information theory, what do you do for an encore? The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn’t the way things go. So that is another reason why you find that when you get early recognition it seems to sterilize you.”
P.S. Visit my page on Quotes on Craft for more wisdom on the principles of craftsmanship and how they apply to the modern world.