The Art of Doing Science and Engineering is one of the most peculiar books I’ve ever encountered. It’s hard for me to distill the essence of the book, but it’s a collection of lectures, life lessons, and goofy vignettes given by Richard Hamming while he was a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. It’s published by Stripe Press and illustrated by Bret Victor.
Hamming is probably best known as the father of error correcting codes. He spent his life thinking about various forms of information theory, how to run simulations, and the best ways to reliably transmit messages. The book explores some of those topics, but it also examines questions of how to choose the right problems and generally how to “live a life worth living.”
I won’t try and capture every lesson here, but here’s a few of the interesting ideas that really resonated with me.
The people who come first never see as clearly as their followers. Einstein and Von Neumann were titans who established their respective fields. And yet, because they lived on the hazy outskirts of knowledge and discovery, they were never as lucid as the scientists who followed in their footsteps.
All communication has redundancy. This includes both human speech and writing! That’s the reason why it might seem odd to speak a verse you’ve just written. Spoken language is 60% redundant, while written language is 40% redundant (the more reason why you have words which sound the same e.g. hear/hear but are spelled differently, than words which are pronounced differently e.g. record/record). Humans are fundamentally faulty creatures, and spoken language doesn’t allow you to pause, go back, scan, and re-consider.
Transmission is how information goes from here to there. Storage is transmission from then to now. I’m still mulling this thought over in my mind, but something that Hamming seems to instinctively grok is the the idea of “time” as an important axis in communication. Are there other disciplines where we currently don’t think of time as a core ingredient, when it really could be that way?
Work with the door open. Hamming found himself constantly encountering new problems and ideas via serendipity. While other colleagues might make more progress in the short-term by working diligently in an uninterrupted manner, he posed that the Nobel-worthy discoveries almost always came from some new insight across fields. Working with the door open invites those ideas in and the connections to be made.
Information == surprise. When Claude Shannon defined information theory, he thought about it as a part of “surprise”. How surprising is the information that’s given? If it’s smoggy in LA, that’s not too surprising. But if it’s raining in Monterey, that’s very surprising. I’ve noticed this phenomenon in communicating with other people too. You want to find people and books who are “high bit-rate”, they convey stuff that is very consistently surprising.
Finding the right problem. You want to make sure that you aren’t getting stuck on a particular problem that captures your fancy. Early researchers often discover more insights than later researchers, mostly because they are more ‘plastic’ and moldable when it comes to choosing their problem. Pick a problem that is both important, and where you can make progress on it. There’s a funny story where Hamming sits at the Chemistry lunch table at Bell Labs and asks everyone “what are the biggest unsolved problems in chemistry?”, and then “what are each of you researching”. He follows it up with “why aren’t you working on the biggest unsolved problems”, and then isn’t welcome at the Chemistry table anymore.
On Jargon. We were evolved from groups of cavemen that lived in communities of 25-100. And as such, we were taught to fear outsiders by developing our own private language. The raise of an eyebrow, subtle gestures, these would all seek to further keep outsiders, out. Jargon is the same for our modern era, but we must keep in mind that we should oppose it! We're now working in far larger groups after all.
On simulations. It's always your responsibility to match that the simulation meets reality. He was talking with a director who simulated the first space launches, who said that they had a 99.4% chance of success. Yet, of the first launches, many were duds, and some even killed astronauts. He wasn't being intellectually honest about what the simulation revealed.
Getting a ‘feel’ for a problem. There's some magic to being able to get a "feel" for a problem. There’s a great story of when Hamming simulated a rocket launch on very primitive hardware. It was so slow to run, that he would have long bouts of thinking in between each little simulation. This allowed him to examine the different parameters, and realize that different approaches, takeoff angles, and wing sizes made a difference. Had the hardware been faster, he might’ve missed all of these and tried to brute force a poor solution.
Luck favors the prepared mind. If there’s one phrase that stuck with me throughout the book, it’s this quote by Pasteur. Studying, learning, and digging into new fields isn’t necessarily about remembering everything, but for preparing your mind. You may not know exactly when a new connection or bit of inspiration might strike, but by being curious and taking on many different problems, you’re likely to encounter something interesting. You want to develop as many “mental hooks” as possible to pick up on the interesting thing!
Trusting the experts. If the experts say that something can be done, trust them. If they say something can't be done... get a second opinion. Experts will tend to disregard anything slightly outside of their purview. Breakthroughs come from outside the field. Prior to carbon dating... we had all of these imprecise heuristics for figuring out how old things were. Where did carbon dating come from? Physics! In summary: the techniques that made you successful in the past probably won't continue to make you successful in the future.
The unexamined life is not worth living. We “get better at getting better” by examining how we spend our time, our thought, and what areas we focus on. We are in control of how we examine our own lives.
In my time of doing research and exploration, I’ve greatly appreciated Hamming’s perspective and advice. I plan to re-read this book every few years, it’s a great reminder of what it takes to truly leave a legacy of important discoveries.