Richard Hamming

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Richard Wesley Hamming (February 11, 1915January 7, 1998) was an American mathematician whose work had many implications for computer science and telecommunications. He received the 1968 Turing Award "for his work on numerical methods, automatic coding systems, and error-detecting and error-correcting codes."


  • The purpose of computing is insight, not numbers.
    • Richard Hamming (1962) Numerical Methods for Scientists and Engineers. Preface
  • Typing is no substitute for thinking.
    • Richard W. Hamming; cited in: John G. Kemeny, ‎Thomas E. Kurtz (1987) Structured BASIC programming. p. 118
  • In science if you know what you are doing you should not be doing it.
    In engineering if you do not know what you are doing you should not be doing it.
    Of course, you seldom, if ever, see the pure state.
    • The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (1997), p. 5

One Man's View of Computer Science (1969)[edit]

1968 Turing Award lecture, Journal of the ACM 16 (1), January 1969, p. 3–12

  • The only generally agreed upon definition of mathematics is "Mathematics is what mathematicians do." [...]
    In the face of this difficulty [of defining "computer science"] many people, including myself at times, feel that we should ignore the discussion and get on with doing it. But as George Forsythe points out so well in a recent article*, it does matter what people in Washington D.C. think computer science is. According to him, they tend to feel that it is a part of applied mathematics and therefore turn to the mathematicians for advice in the granting of funds. And it is not greatly different elsewhere; in both industry and the universities you can often still see traces of where computing first started, whether in electrical engineering, physics, mathematics, or even business. Evidently the picture which people have of a subject can significantly affect its subsequent development. Therefore, although we cannot hope to settle the question definitively, we need frequently to examine and to air our views on what our subject is and should become.
    • *Hamming cites Forsythe, G.E., "What to do until the computer scientist comes", Am. Math. Monthly 75 (5), May 1968, p. 454-461.
  • Without real experience in using the computer to get useful results the computer science major is apt to know all about the marvelous tool except how to use it. Such a person is a mere technician, skilled in manipulating the tool but with little sense of how and when to use it for its basic purposes.
  • Indeed, one of my major complaints about the computer field is that whereas Newton could say, "If I have seen a little farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants," I am forced to say, "Today we stand on each other's feet." Perhaps the central problem we face in all of computer science is how we are to get to the situation where we build on top of the work of others rather than redoing so much of it in a trivially different way. Science is supposed to be cumulative, not almost endless duplication of the same kind of things.

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics (1980)[edit]

The American Mathematical Monthly 87 (2), February 1980, pp. 81-90

  • The Postulates of Mathematics Were Not on the Stone Tablets that Moses Brought Down from Mt. Sinai.
    • (Emphatic capitalization in original.)
  • The idea that theorems follow from the postulates does not correspond to simple observation. If the Pythagorean theorem were found to not follow from the postulates, we would again search for a way to alter the postulates until it was true. Euclid's postulates came from the Pythagorean theorem, not the other way around.
  • Just as there are odors that dogs can smell and we cannot, as well as sounds that dogs can hear and we cannot, so too there are wavelengths of light we cannot see and flavors we cannot taste. Why then, given our brains wired the way they are, does the remark, "Perhaps there are thoughts we cannot think," surprise you?

You and Your Research (1986)[edit]

Bell Communications Research Colloquium Seminar, 7 March 1986 (transcript)

  • When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. [...] The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn't the way things go. So that is another reason why you find that when you get early recognition it seems to sterilize you. [...] The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in my opinion, has ruined more good scientists than any institution has created, judged by what they did before they came and judged by what they did after.
  • Most people like to believe something is or is not true. Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well. They believe the theory enough to go ahead; they doubt it enough to notice the errors and faults so they can step forward and create the new replacement theory. If you believe too much you'll never notice the flaws; if you doubt too much you won't get started. It requires a lovely balance.
  • I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important.

The Art of Probability for Scientists and Engineers (1991)[edit]

  • Probability is too important to be left to the experts. [...] The experts, by their very expert training and practice, often miss the obvious and distort reality seriously. [...] The desire of the experts to publish and gain credit in the eyes of their peers has distorted the development of probability theory from the needs of the average user. The comparatively late rise of the theory of probability shows how hard it is to grasp, and the many paradoxes show clearly that we, as humans, lack a well grounded intuition in the matter. Neither the intuition of the man in the street, nor the sophisticated results of the experts provides a safe basis for important actions in the world we live in.
    • p. 4 [emphasis in original]
  • If the prior distribution, at which I am frankly guessing, has little or no effect on the result, then why bother; and if it has a large effect, then since I do not know what I am doing how would I dare act on the conclusions drawn?
    • p. 298

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