Friday, March 20, 2009

Creating Genius, Part I

In March of 1986, Richard Hamming gave a colloquium seminar talk to Bell Labs scientists. You can find the text of the talk, which was entitled "You and Your Research" here. I think it holds valuable insights for anyone seeking answers. That's all of us, right?

Hamming is famous for his results in communications (e.g. Hamming Codes), and he had the opportunity to work with and observe some of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. He relates that working at Los Alamos with the likes of Richard Feynman made him envious. In his words, "I saw quite a few very capable people. I became very interested in the difference between those who do and those who might have done."

This is a question that's in the air, of course. The recent book Outlier by Malcolm Gladwell takes up a similar question, and I've blogged about the topic in the past. Hamming's remarks have special weight because he did first-class work himself.

There are several themes that Hamming employs. On confidence and courage:
Our society frowns on people who set out to do really good work. You're not supposed to; luck is supposed to descend on you and you do great things by chance. Well, that's a kind of dumb thing to say. I say, why shouldn't you set out to do something significant. You don't have to tell other people, but shouldn't you say to yourself, "Yes, I would like to do something significant.''
It's not really about luck, because people who do good work often go on to do more good work. Think of Feyman or Einstein or Darwin or Newton... I'm focusing on scientists because that's what Hamming is directly addressing, but you can create your own list in other fields of endeavor.

His second point is interesting because it speaks to the whole idea of assessing learning outcomes, if obliquely. Hamming says there are different ways of measuring brains. As an example, he talks about an employee:
I met him when I was working on a problem with John Pierce's group and I didn't think [the employee] had much. I asked my friends who had been with him at school, "Was he like that in graduate school?'' "Yes,'' they replied. Well I would have fired the fellow, but J. R. Pierce was smart and kept him on. Clogston finally did the Clogston cable. After that there was a steady stream of good ideas. One success brought him confidence and courage.
The ability to do good work is more than the cognitive skills we typically try to measure, in other words. We probably ignore a lot of what's important when we focus on narrow learning outcomes, rather than considering a more holistic approach.

Other factors that Hamming cites as important are age, and working conditions--bad ones are good because they spark innovation! Embedded in this rich piece is a theory of learning as an exponential process:
"Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.'' Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the 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. I don't want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime.
This is very similar to the conclusions that others have come to (see Gladwell's book, or my previous blog posts citing other studies). But effort and drive are not enough--it's key that they must be directed. A darker side of all this is that other things have to be neglected in order to accomplish it.

Tolerating ambiguity and looking out for evidence that contradicts your current understanding is another recommendation from Hamming. He quotes Darwin on the topic, saying that "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." Stephen Jay Gould used this idea as a foil in his books, often referring to the "exception that proves the rule."

[to be continued]

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