The American Scholar

Richard Hamming’s “You and your research” is an essay that is often recommended reading for graduate students, as a means of advice from an accomplished scientist. I agree with most of the points he raised: work on the important problems in your field, get the courage to try to solve them, be prepared, be patient and positive etc. There is one point that he made though, which has really bothered me from the day I first read the transcription of his speech:

I had incipient ulcers most of the years that I was at Bell Labs. I have since gone off to the Naval Postgraduate School and laid back somewhat, and now my health is much better. But if you want to be a great scientist you’re going to have to put up with stress. You can lead a nice life; you can be a nice guy or you can be a great scientist.

This really doesn’t make much sense to me. Why does willingness to compromise your health make you a more dedicated scientist? Is a sick or dead scientist better than a healthy one? Is constant stress and fear a prerequisite for being productive and creative? I don’t think they are.

I think I prefer Emerson’s “The American Scholar“.


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