Philosophy Friday: Risk Climbing The Mountain Or Stay Safely On The Flatlands?
On the 7th of March 1986, professor Dr Richard Hamming, a former Bell Labs scientist, delivered a thought-provoking talk to an audience of over 200 scientists. Hamming’s speech, titled “You and Your Research”, centred on why so few scientists make breakthrough contributions in their chosen research areas. The celebrated scientists, he observed, had dared to take on the most difficult problems in their field—those that had to be wrestled with for years before breakthroughs were likely. Hamming pointed out that too many scientists were no longer willing to tackle the significant problems, instead studying comparatively easy, safe and minor concerns.
Hamming suggested to the audience that they might want to pick a significant research topic, a mountain of a problem, and then proceed to work on that. Reasoning that even if one did not get to the top, one might make significant contributions. And even if one did not make substantial contributions, one could point out to others that the pursued course had been fruitless and unlikely to lead to a breakthrough. That, argued Hamming, was a career more meaningful than churning out copious research papers on insignificant science.
“Why shouldn’t you do significant things in this one life, however you define significant?”
– Richard Hamming, “You and Your Research”
Hamming had designed his talk to invigorate the scientific community. Yet, it is relevant for us too—it not only applies to science but any area of aspirational human endeavour.
Do we want to try and push the boundaries in a chosen domain, exposing ourselves to risk and ridicule? Or play only within the safe zone?
It’s up to you—Do you want to contribute and try to climb to the top of a mountain, or are you happy to languish in the lowlands, entirely certain not to discover anything new and significant?
It’s your life and your choice.
“There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”
– from Shakespear’s Julius Caesar