Richard Hamming's The Art of Doing Science and Engineering-- Favorite Excerpts
What’s your style?
Highly, highly recommend. In fact, I just might re-read, only one year after
Time: September 23, 2017
Place: Along the rocky olive groves mountain tops of Crete
Pointer from: Clued in by a podcast, hooked by the words “art" and “engineering" in the same sentence
Note type: Direct
The purpose of this course is to prepare you for your technical future. There is really no technical content in the course, though I will, of course, refer to a great deal of it, and hopefully it will generally be a good review of the fundamentals you have learned. Do not think the technical content is the course—it is only illustrative material. Style of thinking is the center of the course. I am concerned with educating and not training you.
I will examine, criticize, and display styles of thinking. To illustrate the points of style I will often use technical knowledge most of you know, but, again, it will be, I hope, in the form of a useful review which concentrates on the fundamentals. You should regard this as a course which complements the many technical courses you have learned. Many of the things I will talk about are things which I believe you ought to know but which simply do not fit into courses in the standard curriculum. The course exists because the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering of the Naval Postgraduate School recognizes the need for both a general education and the specialized technical training your future demands.
The course is concerned with “style", and almost by definition style cannot be taught in the normal manner by using words. I can only approach the topic through particular examples, which I hope are well within your grasp, though the examples come mainly from my 30 years in the mathematics department of the Research Division of Bell Telephone Laboratories (before it was broken up). It also comes from years of study of the work of others.
The belief anything can be “talked about" in words was certainly held by the early Greek philosophers, Socrates (469–399), Plato (427–347), and Aristotle (384–322). This attitude ignored the current mystery cults of the time who asserted you had to “experience" some things which could not be communicated in words. Examples might be the gods, truth, justice, the arts, beauty, and love. Your scientific training has emphasized the role of words, along with a strong belief in reductionism, hence to emphasize the possible limitations of language I shall take up the topic in several places in the book. I have already said “style" is such a topic.
In a sense my boss was saying intellectual investment is like compound interest, the more you do the more you learn how to do, so the more you can do, etc. I do not know what compound interest rate to assign, but it must be well over 6%—one extra hour per day over a lifetime will much more than double the total output. The steady application of a bit more effort has a great total accumulation.
But be careful—the race is not to the one who works hardest! You need to work on the right problem at the right time and in the right way—what I have been calling “style". At the urging of others, for some years I set aside Friday afternoons for “great thoughts". Of course I would answer the telephone, sign a letter, and such trivia, but essentially, once lunch started, I would only think great thoughts—what was the nature of computing, how would it affect the development of science, what was the natural role of computers in Bell Telephone Laboratories, what effect will computers have on AT&T, on Science generally? I found it was well worth the 10% of my time to do this careful examination of where computing was heading so I would know where we were going and hence could go in the right direction. I was not the drunken sailor staggering around and canceling many of my steps by random other steps, but could progress in a more or less straight line. I could also keep a sharp eye on the important problems and see that my major effort went to them.
I strongly recommend this taking the time, on a regular basis, to ask the larger questions and not stay immersed in the sea of detail where almost every one stays almost all of the time. These chapters have regularly stressed the bigger picture, and if you are to be leader into the future, rather than to be a follower of others, I am now saying it seems to me to be necessary for you to look at the bigger picture on a regular, frequent basis for many years.
Great people can tolerate ambiguity, they can both believe and disbelieve at the same time. You must be able to believe your organization and field of research is the best there is, but also there is much room for improvement! You can sort of see why this is a necessary trait
I must come to the topic of “selling" new ideas
- giving formal presentations,
- producing written reports,
- master the art of informal presentations as they happen to occur
[More notes in Kindle]
September 24th, 2017