The Hamming Question

This is a stub post, mostly ex­ist­ing so peo­ple can eas­ily link to a post ex­plain­ing what the Ham­ming ques­tion is. If you would like to write a real ver­sion of this post, ping me and I’ll ar­range to give you edit rights to this stub.

For now, I am steal­ing the words from Ja­co­bian’s event post:

Math­e­mat­i­cian Richard Ham­ming used to ask sci­en­tists in other fields “What are the most im­por­tant prob­lems in your field?” partly so he could troll them by ask­ing “Why aren’t you work­ing on them?” and partly be­cause get­ting asked this ques­tion is re­ally use­ful for fo­cus­ing peo­ple’s at­ten­tion on what mat­ters.
CFAR de­vel­oped the tech­nique of “Ham­ming Ques­tions” as differ­ent prompts to get your brain to (ac­tu­ally) think about the biggest prob­lems, bot­tle­necks, and un­spo­ken de­sires in your life.

A tran­script of Ham­ming’s ex­ten­sive 1986 talk “You and your re­search”, touches upon a sev­eral el­e­ments of Ham­ming’s philos­o­phy, and in­cludes this anec­dote about the canon­i­cal “Ham­ming Ques­tion”:

Over on the other side of the din­ing hall was a chem­istry table. I had worked with one of the fel­lows, Dave McCall; fur­ther­more he was court­ing our sec­re­tary at the time. I went over and said, “Do you mind if I join you?” They can’t say no, so I started eat­ing with them for a while. And I started ask­ing, “What are the im­por­tant prob­lems of your field?” And af­ter a week or so, “What im­por­tant prob­lems are you work­ing on?” And af­ter some more time I came in one day and said, “If what you are do­ing is not im­por­tant, and if you don’t think it is go­ing to lead to some­thing im­por­tant, why are you at Bell Labs work­ing on it?” I wasn’t wel­comed af­ter that; I had to find some­body else to eat with! That was in the spring.
In the fall, Dave McCall stopped me in the hall and said, “Ham­ming, that re­mark of yours got un­der­neath my skin. I thought about it all sum­mer, i.e. what were the im­por­tant prob­lems in my field. I haven’t changed my re­search,” he says, “but I think it was well worth­while.” And I said, “Thank you Dave,” and went on. I no­ticed a cou­ple of months later he was made the head of the de­part­ment. I no­ticed the other day he was a Mem­ber of the Na­tional Academy of Eng­ineer­ing. I no­ticed he has suc­ceeded. I have never heard the names of any of the other fel­lows at that table men­tioned in sci­ence and sci­en­tific cir­cles. They were un­able to ask them­selves, “What are the im­por­tant prob­lems in my field?”
If you do not work on an im­por­tant prob­lem, it’s un­likely you’ll do im­por­tant work. It’s perfectly ob­vi­ous. Great sci­en­tists have thought through, in a care­ful way, a num­ber of im­por­tant prob­lems in their field, and they keep an eye on won­der­ing how to at­tack them. Let me warn you, “im­por­tant prob­lem” must be phrased care­fully. The three out­stand­ing prob­lems in physics, in a cer­tain sense, were never worked on while I was at Bell Labs. By im­por­tant I mean guaran­teed a No­bel Prize and any sum of money you want to men­tion. We didn’t work on (1) time travel, (2) tele­por­ta­tion, and (3) anti­grav­ity. They are not im­por­tant prob­lems be­cause we do not have an at­tack. It’s not the con­se­quence that makes a prob­lem im­por­tant, it is that you have a rea­son­able at­tack. That is what makes a prob­lem im­por­tant. When I say that most sci­en­tists don’t work on im­por­tant prob­lems, I mean it in that sense. The av­er­age sci­en­tist, so far as I can make out, spends al­most all his time work­ing on prob­lems which he be­lieves will not be im­por­tant and he also doesn’t be­lieve that they will lead to im­por­tant prob­lems.

Vika Krakovna wrote up a re­port about how CFAR ap­plies the tech­nique in some of their work­shops:

The CFAR alumni work­shop on the first week­end of May was fo­cused on the Ham­ming ques­tion. Math­e­mat­i­cian Richard Ham­ming was known to ap­proach ex­perts from other fields and ask “what are the im­por­tant prob­lems in your field, and why aren’t you work­ing on them?”. The same ques­tion can be ap­plied to per­sonal life: “what are the im­por­tant prob­lems in your life, and what is stop­ping you from work­ing on them?”.
Over the course of the week­end, the twelve of us asked this ques­tion of our­selves and each other, in many forms and guises: “if Vika isn’t mak­ing a ma­jor im­pact on the world in 5 years, what would have stopped her?”, “what are your great­est bot­tle­necks?”, “how can we ac­tu­ally try?”, etc. The in­tense fo­cus on men­tal pain points was in­ter­spersed with naps and silly games to let off steam. On the last day, we did a group brain­storm, where ev­ery­one who wanted to re­ceive feed­back took a turn in the cen­ter of the cir­cle, and ev­ery­one else spec­u­lated on what they thought were the biggest bot­tle­necks of the per­son in the cen­ter. By this time, we had mostly got­ten to know each other, and even the im­pres­sions from those who knew me less well were sur­pris­ingly ac­cu­rate. I am very grate­ful to ev­ery­one at the work­shop for be­ing so in­sight­ful and sup­port­ive of each other (and ac­tu­ally car­ing).