a.k.a. Richard Hamming vs. Richard Feynman

I am going to graduate my phd soon. I’ve been talking to some prospective students recently, and a common question that comes up is: what makes a good phd student? how to be a good researcher?

I’d point them to some articles, but to be honest I have no idea. What I did spend a lot of time thinking about, and have arrived at a somewhat self-convincing answer, is to a slightly different question - what makes a happy phd student?

The answer is that they are married.

(Obviously this is a joke. We did once survey a 10-phd bbq party, and marriage was the most statistically significant positive correlator. But that’s a story for another time.)

Richard Hamming’s inspiring and influential talk You and Your Research is what convinced me to do a phd. I wanted to work on important problems and aspired to contribute to the advancement of human knowledge. Oh, to be a scientist! 3 years in I felt like there was no hope; I’ve toiled away all my time and the only way out is to quit.

So I sought advice from my parents. They asked me to think about the least accomplished PhD graduate I know - Can I do as much as they did? What would a minimum effort phd look like? I answered that would result in a pretty bad thesis. And they said, that’s fine, bad is ok, go do what you can. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

And here we are.

This line of reason was put into words a lot more elegantly by Richard Feynman. Allow me to quote his letter in its entirety here - I thought it was the perfect antidote to Hamming-esque anxieties, the Dionysus to our Apollo. Enjoy, and hope you will finish your phd with peacefulness in your heart as well.

Dear Koichi,

I was very happy to hear from you, and that you have such a position in the Research Laboratories. Unfortunately your letter made me unhappy for you seem to be truly sad. It seems that the influence of your teacher has been to give you a false idea of what are worthwhile problems. The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and we see some way for us to make some headway into it. I would advise you to take even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is worthwhile.

You met me at the peak of my career when I seemed to you to be concerned with problems close to the gods. But at the same time I had another Ph.D. Student (Albert Hibbs) was on how it is that the winds build up waves blowing over water in the sea. I accepted him as a student because he came to me with the problem he wanted to solve. With you I made a mistake, I gave you the problem instead of letting you find your own; and left you with a wrong idea of what is interesting or pleasant or important to work on (namely those problems you see you may do something about). I am sorry, excuse me. I hope by this letter to correct it a little.

I have worked on innumerable problems that you would call humble, but which I enjoyed and felt very good about because I sometimes could partially succeed. For example, experiments on the coefficient of friction on highly polished surfaces, to try to learn something about how friction worked (failure). Or, how elastic properties of crystals depends on the forces between the atoms in them, or how to make electroplated metal stick to plastic objects (like radio knobs). Or, how neutrons diffuse out of Uranium. Or, the reflection of electromagnetic waves from films coating glass. The development of shock waves in explosions. The design of a neutron counter. Why some elements capture electrons from the L-orbits, but not the K-orbits. General theory of how to fold paper to make a certain type of child’s toy (called flexagons). The energy levels in the light nuclei. The theory of turbulence (I have spent several years on it without success). Plus all the “grander” problems of quantum theory.

No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.

You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their simple questions when they come into your office. You are not nameless to me. Do not remain nameless to yourself – it is too sad a way to be. now your place in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of your naïve ideals of your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher’s ideals are.

Best of luck and happiness.

Sincerely, Richard P. Feynman.