Beki Grinter

At What Cost is Greatness:? Reflections on Hamming, Science and Families

In academia, academic management, empirical, research, women on August 22, 2011 at 11:50 am

I recently re-read Richard Hamming’s You and Your Research talk which is a talk about how to do great research. The one that he hoped no-one would write down and of course they did and at least for a time it was very popular. But, I think its time is past. At least I hope it is. There’s a startling remark and assumption in the speech. This is sad because there are some useful points. Luck favours the prepared mind. Be independent. You need more than brains. Look at limitations or constraints as problems. Learn to love ambiguity. Good.

Then we get to drive. Great researchers are so passionate about their research that they starve their mind of all other thoughts to force it to work on the problem. I question the psychology behind this theory, but it’s a very strong suggestion of what’s to come next, the idea of researcher as lone individual working on a problem with an unbroken focus. And then he goes on to admit that science caused him to neglect his wife.

I was once in a setting with a group of male scientists who had all gotten to positions of substantial importance as scholars and leaders in a variety of the sciences. They started discussing how they had neglected their families in pursuit of their careers, and more than one person cried or got very choked up about this fact (particularly focused, it seemed, on their children). Perhaps they viewed themselves as great scientists, but ones with regrets. Another reason it was so surprising to me is that like other women, I’ve felt that the topic of work-family balance is pervasive when groups of women scientists meet. Even if it perpetuates these same notions of scientist versus parent.

In the 21st century I hope that we will continue to work to reset expectations that it is either career or family and that science trumps family. Until that expectation changes, I don’t see how we can truly create a diverse environment or a sane/healthy one. And that’s why I believe that Hamming has had his time. I’ve seen the cost of greatness in the tears of scholars and leaders and in my mind that’s too much, not just for the scientist in question, but for all those affected by decisions made based on systems of priorities that I think no longer have a place in academia.

Update: I’ve had some feedback, and yes, I wish rather than think its time is past. I agree that there are a set of metrics in place that really continue to reinforce this. But, I keep hoping/wishing because I’m a participant in this enterprise.

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  1. The datedness reminds me a bit of Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s “Advice for a Young Investigator”, a turn-of-the-century (1900) look at research. Some of the advice is still relevant–themes like “diseases of the will” and ” breeding offspring scholars to surpass you” still are valuable to consider. But his advice on family life and the role for women is a bit dated.

    • Thanks! Unfortunately while dated I think we are still beholden to its legacy. Expectations about how much we work (and how we make that possible, and who sacrifices what for that)… Inspired by others, I think a closer examination of the ways that our current metrics of evaluation reinforce rather than reverse these expectations is fruitful…

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