Joel Christiansen

Richard Hamming: The Way You Do It

May 1, 2023
You and Your Research on achieving non-triviality by changing the problem slightly:

I want to talk on another topic. It is based on the song which I think many of you know, "It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it." I'll start with an example of my own. I was conned into doing on a digital computer, in the absolute binary days, a problem which the best analog computers couldn't do. And I was getting an answer. When I thought carefully and said to myself, "You know, Hamming, you're going to have to file a report on this military job; after you spend a lot of money you're going to have to account for it and every analog installation is going to want the report to see if they can't find flaws in it." I was doing the required integration by a rather crummy method, to say the least, but I was getting the answer. And I realized that in truth the problem was not just to get the answer; it was to demonstrate for the first time, and beyond question, that I could beat the analog computer on its own ground with a digital machine. I reworked the method of solution, created a theory which was nice and elegant, and changed the way we computed the answer; the results were no different. The published report had an elegant method which was later known for years as "Hamming's Method of Integrating Differential Equations." It is somewhat obsolete now, but for a while it was a very good method. By changing the problem slightly, I did important work rather than trivial work.