A book written by Richard W. Hamming, it has slowly became one of my favourite books of all time. I would mention a few snippets I’ve found particularly inspiring.

Ambiguity in sciences

There is another trait of great people I must talk about—and it took me a long time to realize it. 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 If you believe too much you will not likely see the chances for significant improvements, you will see believe enough you will be filled with doubts and get very little chances for only the 2%, 5%, and 10% improvements; if you do not done. I have not the faintest idea of how to teach the tolerance of ambiguity, both belief and disbelief at the same time, but great people do it all the time.

Selection process

In Mathematics, and in Computer Science, a similar effect of initial selection happens. In the earlier stages of Mathematics up through the Calculus, as well as in Computer Science, grades are closely related to the ability to carry out a lot of details with high reliability. But later, especially in Mathematics, the qualities needed to succeed change and it becomes more proving theorems, patterns of reasoning, and the ability to conjecture new results, new theorems, and new definitions which matter. Still later it is the ability to see the whole of a field as a whole, and not as a lot of fragments. But the grading process has earlier, to a great extent, removed many of those you might want, and indeed are needed at the later stage! It is very similar in Computer Science where the ability to cope with the mass of programming details favors one kind of mind, one which is often negatively correlated with seeing the bigger picture.

Cramming

Most of you try to pass your individual courses by cramming at the end of the term, which is to a great extent counter-productive, as you well know, to the total education you need. You look at your problem as passing the courses one at a time, or a term at a time, but you know in your hearts what matters is what you emerge with at the end, and what happens at each stage is not as important. During my last two undergraduate college years when I was the University of Chicago, the rule was at the end you had to pass a single exam based on 9 courses in your major field, and another exam based on 6 in your minor field, and these were mainly what mattered, not what grades you got along the way. I, for the first time, came to understand what the system approach to education means. While taking any one course, it was not a matter of passing it, pleasing the professor, or anything like that, it was learning it so at a later date, maybe two years later, I would still know the things which should be in the course

Next reviews post

All reviews posts