TK Akhilan’s thoughtful & fabulous reflections on Richard Hamming’s thought-provoking, evergreen essay

January 17, 2023

A couple of posts ago on this blog, there was this recommendation of Mahamaho Richard Hamming’s brilliant essay: You and Your Research.

And, then Sriman, young TKA has actually read it in full (may be one of a very few who committed that crime?), reflected on it and has been sweet enough to share his thoughts… His essay is reproduced verbatim, below – with his permission.

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When I started reading this write-up, it pulled me into it.  Probably due to the style of this essay and my mood at that time.  The following is part of my thoughts about the essay. I am not sure any coherence is there in this thoughts.  I tried to look it into a perspective of a common man to see how the traits required for a great scientist is not much different from a ‘great’ common man. Below are my reflections!

This essay is about doing great research. I am not interested in any research. Neither I am looking for greatness in whatever I am doing, If at all I am doing anything.  However, reading the first few paragraphs forced me to go into the rest of this lengthy write-up, probably due to the state of mind at that time. I think the concepts talked about can be applied to everybody whether they are doing any great research or any other great work or just to live a great life. In other words, anybody who wants to be ‘great’ of any sort, the ideas told in this essay can be applied directly or with slight modification with respect to the type of ‘greatness’ one wants to achieve. One thing is for sure. Everybody out here wants to be ‘great’ in one or the other way, but may not be knowing where they want to be great and this ignorance spoil the game. Hence these principles are applicable to everybody – but many may need some more ideas to identify the ‘field’ of their greatness.

Before going further into this, the following is a list of ideas given in the essay for ‘great’ research work.

1.                   Luck favors the prepared mind.

2.                   Brain power

3.                   One success bring in confidence and courage

4.                   Courage – under incredible circumstances

5.                   Age factor

6.                   If one becomes famous, still look into small problems (which may grow and give new opportunities.

7.                   Best working conditions need not produce best results. Often bad working conditions produce  superb results.

8.                   Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.  Regular, constant investment produce extraordinary results

9.                   Ambiguity – Believe enough to go ahead and doubt enough to clear the issues.

10.               Keep your thoughts only about the problem at hand – Keep the subconscious starved, so that it works on the problem at hand and produces results.

11.               If what is doing is not important and does not lead to something important,  what, one, is doing here?

12.               Great thought time – provide enough time regularly for great thoughts.

13.               Pursue one important thing and leaving all others aside is a disaster

14.               Openness in mind for others – even if they are distracting

15.               The way of doing things is as important as the thing itself.

16.               Having the horizon in view rather than just one object in view at a time.

17.               `It is a poor workman who blames his tools – the good man gets on with the job, given what he’s got, and gets the best answer he can.

18.               Selling the job is more important than doing the job – things to do for selling

19.               raise enough voice in such a way without offending, to get the resources.

20.               Commitment to the activity on hand produces results.

21.               Rather than fighting the system, learn to take advantage of the system.

22.               Getting over the personality defect of “ego assertion”

23.               Friendly with people involved.

24.               Avoid anger

25.               Convert the defect into an asset

26.               Avoid self delusion – Finding reasons for failures

27.               Self knowledge – Understand the strengths and weakness of self

I could identify the above 27 ideas in this essay to become a ‘great’ scientist and then the essay asks the reader, “Therefore, go forth and become a great scientist”

27.          For this essay (or talk), ‘who is the audience’ is very clear and hence the 27th idea, with its limited context, may be sufficient. But this particular reader of this essay is neither a scientist/researcher nor a one who wants to do any specific great work. Probably one who would like to live a great life as a whole. For such readers the 27th idea must come in the first place with more wider context than that presented in this essay.

If one is aware of his personality, which is self knowledge in a limited perspective, then based on the personality traits, it is possible to identify where his greatness lies. If such a person wants to be great in a certain field few questions need to be asked and genuinely answered by that person – Will his personality traits allow to achieve greatness in the wanted field?  Will there be any possibility of conscious effort and commitment to modify the personality traits to become great in that field? If the answers to these questions are negative, then the greatness of such a person does not lie in the chosen field. Either that person must forgo any greatness in his life or choose a field suitable for the personality traits.

But how far are people capable of such self awareness? How far the society or education system gives a possibility of such self awareness to the common man or the aspirants of greatness in any field? As far as I know, such possibility is not available except a very, very few elites – elite in the sense of getting such knowledge. I am pointing to a society, whose culture embedded the highest value to the ‘self knowledge’ since the time the history is available about that culture.

If a person is having enough self awareness, for that person, moving towards greatness is a natural process. For such a person, there is no need for any more ideas to taste greatness. Unfortunately we are in a situation where nearly the whole population is not having self awareness or getting a bit of such awareness at a stage that it is too late to have any reasonable impact in their life. Hence there is a need for talking to other ideas as listed above, presented in the  essay. By going through these ideas, possibly one may become aware of the seat of his greatness.

1.     Coming down to reality,  without even knowing where(which field) the greatness lies for a person, the other 26 ideas need to be looked into. And one thing is sure – If one takes the trouble of reading this lengthy write-up,  there is a desire within him to be great somewhere. I believe, rather assert, luck favors such persons.  The catch is that Luck will not give greatness as a package, but through various situations. The desire of ‘to be great’ in that person will have to make the right choices in situations. The intensity of that desire is high, the possibility of right choice is also high.

Another problem with desire is that, very often people do not know how to desire. It is very common that two desires of the same person are with serious conflicts between them. In such a case, which desire should come into reality? – I think self awareness is the answer.

2.            This essay is targeted to a selected group. Hence it says all have the same brain power to become great. In the context of this commentary, for which there is no specific target group, even though the overall brain power is the same, the direction set-in in the brain are not the same. Hence everyone cannot be great; for the desire to become great is not with everybody. For those who desire greatness, for sure, evolution has given enough brain power. But that person must set his desire aligned to that set in the brain. Once the desire for greatness is there within a person and that desire is not in conflict with other strong desires of that person,  that alignment is possible.

4.            Courage to travel on an uncharted path is an essential quality for greatness in any direction.  But it should be real courage – not a made-up courage. Real courage is nothing but fearlessness. Made-up courage coexists with fear – which, more often, pulls down from greatness. Fearlessness does not mean, be blind to everything and go ahead, but it means see clearly and go ahead. 

7.            Within the limitations imposed on my horizon,  ‘Best working conditions need not produce best result’ is applicable to every field. This is one factor with a slightly modified perspective, according to me, is going to take a very big toll on the current young generation and if not corrective measures are taken, going to torture the generations to come.

Common life has become so simple and everything around life is systematically arranged for a mediocre life. A minimum level of wealth is the only necessity to have this easy life, earning that wealth is also relatively easy compared to the days of past. The brains of children grow-up in this well arranged society, added with extra comfort given by the parents under so many illusions, are not at all exposed to real life situations. When they grow-up and go to the outside world and in situations where they need to step out of the arranged systems, many such people do not know how to respond and psychologically collapse. Of course, due to the arrangement of society,  they can quickly step back into the system.  Those who fail to step back into the arranged system, lose their life miserably. This comfort given by economic prosperity and technological advancements, unless used consciously, will take away many of the qualities we call us human, from future generations. It will be the cause of the psychological suffering of the vast majority of the future generations.  I have such fear, but it may be just my illusioniory thought also.

In other words, if we are exposed to simple problems of life when we are young and probably guided to travel across, give the strength to face the much bigger problems of real life gracefully and can have a great life altogether. I have a feeling that, at least in the area of population available for my observation, in most of the reasonably well to do families, children are completely isolated from real life. They are almost growing in a virtual world.

9.            Believe enough to go ahead and doubt enough to solve the issues. This is one attribute, must have for any greatness, but in general missing everywhere. People tend to believe fully or doubt fully.  It is either – or, for almost everybody and is one of the main reasons such that greatness is a rare phenomena. But is it possible to cultivate this quality? May be possible, if constant education is given in this direction.

10.          ‘Think about only the problem at hand’ – This may be a speculative idea, which is possible for those who are very intense in the selected path or who have mastered their mind with lifelong work with that as their only aim. If one is having this quality, he is already a great, whatever field he is in. Further greatness just follows. But to cultivate this quality to become great is almost an impossible task,  as per my understanding of the functioning of mind.

11.          A very practical suggestion for everybody. We humans have a very, very short life span considering the potential we have to live our life, even if we are lucky to live a full life span of 80 or 90 or even 100 year, on a time scale of not even the universe, but just the earth’s life. It is like a single blinking, we come here and are already gone! In this short period, if we are not doing what we consider as important, leave alone all the greatness in social sense, at the core of our interior personality,  why the hell this creation gave a chance for us to have such a wonderful life  like this here.

As I write, it seems to me that I am deflecting from the actual ideas present in the essay and diluting it. And hence end it here.  

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Fabulous, TKA – thanks again. There is enough food for thought, over and above what Richard Hamming said, in your reflection…

There is also this young gent ‘Tamizhan’ who has shared his views & comments on Richard Hamming. Thanks to him too!

END

14 Responses to “TK Akhilan’s thoughtful & fabulous reflections on Richard Hamming’s thought-provoking, evergreen essay”


  1. I don’t know who this essayist is. However I suspect he is a young reader and a clear thinker. In case he is under 20, I am sure he will reach great heights in life. I am happy to have read this in full. Thank you.

    • TKA Says:

      என் இளமையை உறுதி செய்ததற்கு நன்றி ஐயா! ஆனால் என்ன, நீங்கள் குறிப்பிட்டிருக்கும் வயதை மறுபக்கத்திலிருந்து கணக்கிட்டால் ஒருவேளை சரியாக வர வாய்ப்பு உண்டு. ஒத்திசைவு ”இளமை’யுடன் சேர்த்து உள்-குத்து’ எதையாவது வைத்திருக்கலாம். மற்றபடி படித்ததற்கும் பின்னூட்டத்திற்கும் நன்றி – ஒத்திசைவுக்கும் சேர்த்து!


      • ஐயன்மீர் அகிலன்,

        :-)

        மனதளவில் இளமை இருக்கிறது என்பது என் கருத்து.

        …எனக்கு, நான் மீண்டும் (சகதியில் வீழ்ந்து) மீண்டும் சொல்லிக் கொள்வதென்பது என்னவென்றால்…
        “கிழவனுடைய  அறிவு முதிர்ச்சியும், நடு வயதினனுக்குள்ள மனத் திடனும், இளைஞனுடைய உத்ஸாகமும்,  குழந்தையின் ஹ்ருதயமும், தேவர்களே, எனக்கு எப்போதும் நிலைத்திருக்கும்படி அருள் செய்க…”
        – – சுப்ரமண்ய பாரதி

        ஆனால், குழந்தைக்கும் இளைஞனுக்கும் இடையே இருக்கும் விடலைப் பிராந்தியத்தில் அவ்வப்போது தன்னிச்சையாக மாட்டிக்கொண்டு மீள்வதற்குப் பிரயத்தனம் செய்ய வேண்டியும் வருகிறது.

        ஊக்கபோனஸ்ஸாக – இந்த ‘தேவர்’களைப் பற்றி அவ்வப்போது சந்தேகம் வந்துவிடுகிறது. என்ன செய்ய.

        – அயோக்கிய கமலகாச நோய் என்னைப் பீடிக்க விட்டுவிடக்கூடாது என்ற என் கங்கணத்தைக் காற்றில் பறக்க விட்டுவிட்டு, அந்த ஆசாமியின் படத்தைப் பார்க்க வேண்டுமோ என்னவோ?

        மற்றபடி, உங்கள் கருத்துகளில் – 27 குறித்த விஷயத்தை(யும்) விரித்து எழுதினால் என்ன குறைந்தா போய்விடுவீர்கள்?


      • அட நாராயணா! வாழ்க.


      • ஆமருவியாரே! என்னைப் பொறுத்தவரை அனைவரும் இளைஞர்கள்தாம் – குறிப்பாக, நம் சக ஏழரைகள்; மனதில் ஒரு துளியாவது இளமைக்குரிய குறுகுறுப்பும் உன்னிப்பாக ஒரு விஷயத்தை அணுகும் பண்பும் இல்லாவிட்டால், இந்தப் பதிவெழவுகளை யாரால் தாங்க முடியும் சொல்லுங்கள்?

        மேலும், அடியேனுடன் பொரு/றுத்திப் பார்க்கும்போது – மிகப்பெரும்பான்மை  (இது 1000% எனக்கூட இருக்கலாம்) சகஏழரைகள் எனக்கு வயதில் இளையவர்களே!

        ஆகவே.

        ஆண்டவனின் அருள் கிடைத்ததா? மனக்கமல் அகன்றதா?


      • ஆழ்வார்பேட்டை ஆண்டவரின் அருள் என்றும் உண்டு. நான் ஆழ்வார்பேட்டை லஸ் ஆஞ்சநேயரைச் சொல்கிறேன்.

      • TKA Says:

        27 குறித்த விஷயத்தை விரித்து எழுதலாம்தான். ஆனால் அதை படித்துவிட்டு யாராவது அதை சீரியஸாக எடுத்தால், அவர்கள் குறைந்து போவதற்கு வாய்ப்பு உண்டு.

        On a serious note, according to my understanding, there are many layers on self knowledge. There may be contradiction between layers. There may be gaps which may not be filled by our logic, but by some assumption approved by the ‘logic systems’. Understanding of that logic systems are another long story, which I don’t have yet. Even if one have that understanding, transferring it to another person, needs that person also should have the understanding of that logic system. Possibly, even after the understanding of logic systems, still there will be gaps and that gap can only be filled by strong “Taps” on those gaps or/and direct experience. Even then, understanding it and transferring that understanding to at least some extent is not easy due to the configuration of our brain towards gaining new knowledge. In the past, when I was not having enough maturity (இப்போதும் அப்படியே!), tried to write something about it. But after some (reasonably long) time, it seems to me that, those writings are not even worth for junk.

        The following is an extract from a news letter, which I received recently, about J. Krishnamurthy. (உங்களுக்கு JK – ன் சில/பல கருத்துக்கள் ஒத்து வராது என்று நினைக்கிறேன்) This is one of the statement about “self knowledge”, at some higher level, but for many it may looks like illogical.

        “If you pass on through the meadows with their thousand flowers of every color imaginable, from bright red to yellow and purple, and their bright green grass washed clean by last night’s rain, rich and verdant – again without a single movement of the machinery of thought – then you will know what love is. To look at the blue sky, the high full-blown clouds, the green hills with their clear lines against the sky, the rich grass and the fading flower – to look without a word of yesterday; then, when the mind is completely quiet, silent, and undisturbed by any thought, when the observer is completely absent – then there is unity. Not that you are united with the flower, or with the cloud, or with those sweeping hills; rather, there is a feeling of complete non-being in which the division between you and another ceases. The woman carrying those provisions she bought in the market, the big black Alsatian dog, the two children playing with the ball – if you can look at all these without a word, without a measure, without any association, then the quarrel between you and another ceases. This state, without the word, without thought, is the expanse of mind that has no boundaries, no frontiers within which the I and the not-I can exist. Don’t think this is imagination, or some flight of fancy, or some desired mystical experience; it is not. It is as actual as the bee on that flower, or the little girl on her bicycle, or the man going up a ladder to paint the house – the whole conflict of the mind in its separation has come to an end……”

        But it will be having a use only for those who try to travel that path, and who can understand and aware that any talk/writing about it is only at certain context and cannot be applied universally. Otherwise what is told for one thing will be taken for something else.

  2. Mahesh Says:

    It’s a great precis. Thanks, TKA!

    • TKA Says:

      ஐயோ!, நானும் ‘great’ ஆகி விட்டேன். ரிச்சர்ட் ஹாம்மிங்-கே சரணம்! – நன்றி மகேஷ்!

      • mahesh Says:

        நீர் அல்ல great. உமது precisஐ மட்டுமே குறிப்பிட்டேன் ஐயா :)


      • யோவ்! ஆனால் ‘நீர் இன்றி அமையாது உலகு…” எனச் சான்றோர் பகர்ந்திருப்பது எதற்கோ… :-(

        நீர் great தான்! bleddy


  3. Sir
    The hyperlink for You and Your Research in this post is given as https://othisaivu.in/?page_id=16918 Seems it’s not working. Please take care.

    I read Akhilan’s article in full. As Amaruvi Devanathan observed, very clear thinking. Will soon read the original article too. As always, thanks a lot for sharing.


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