The duty of a scientist and conquering fears by practice with Richard W. Hamming

By the 1950s I had found I was frightened when giving public talks to large audiences, this in spite of having taught classes in college for many years. On thinking this over very seriously, I came to the conclusion I could not afford to be crippled that way and still become a great scientist; the duty of a scientist is not only to find new things, but to communicate them successfully in at least three forms:

  1. Writing papers and books
  2. Prepared public talks
  3. Impromptu talks

Lacking any one of these would be a serious drag on my career. How to learn to give public talks without being so afraid was my problem. The answer was obviously by practice, and while other things might help, practice was a necessary thing to do.– Richard W. Hamming from the The Art of Doing Science and Engineering

The duty of a scientist is not only to research, but to communicate.

What’s our typical image of a scientist? Someone dressed in a white lab coat, hovering over a microscope. A lab assistant near, clipboard in hand (even in 2022). Hidden in the basement of some concrete government cube.

But think of the inspiring scientists of our time: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bob Bakker, Oliver Sacks, the shark lady Eugenie Clark. They were and are scientists of the public. They shared their ideas on TV, in documentaries, podcasts, and lectures. These scientists were and are able to communicate successfully in at least the first two forms mentioned by Richard W. Hamming. Judging by interviews and their public personas I’m sure they were all capable of form #3 as well.

Mr. Richard W. Hamming’s mindset towards his fear is also worth noting. He could’ve dismissed his trepidation of speaking to large crowds as “something I’m just not wired for”. But he didn’t bury his head in the gravel. He decided practice was the necessary thing to do. Hamming would go on to give one of the preeminent talks on cultivating a scientific career titled – You and Your Research.

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