Richard Hamming’s “The Art of Doing Science and Engineering”

I bought this charming book and started flipping through and reading bits here and there. It has a real mid-twentieth-century feel, reminiscent of Richard Feynman, Martin Gardner, and Hugo Steinhaus. It gives me some nostalgia, thinking about a time when it was expected that students could do all sorts of math—it kinda made me wish I’d lived my life in that milieu, 50 years earlier.

P.S. The title is not so descriptive. It’s not really about doing science and engineering; it’s really about doing computing and numerical analysis. That’s ok: computing and numerical analysis are interesting topics.

16 thoughts on “Richard Hamming’s “The Art of Doing Science and Engineering”

  1. Thanks for the book recommendation. I will check it out.

    I’m intrigued by your statement that you kinda wish you’d lived in that time when students were better mathematicians. Is this, perhaps, a romantic view of the past? As I wrote in a recent post**, I’m guessing many scientists several decades ago were better at math not by choice, but by necessity.


    • +1

      On a related note: I think the kind of math it made sense to teach 50 or 70 years ago was largely dictated by the lack of computers.

      Unfortunately most courses have not changed sufficiently to adjust for today’s world where you have all sorts of numerical solvers at your fingertips.

      I wish courses would change to focus more on problem formulation, setting boundary conditions and also about how to correctly use numerical tools and check solutions for reasonableness etc.

  2. Another wonderful book about engineering is Petroski’s To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design.

    Amazon abstract: “How did a simple design error cause one of the great disasters of the 1980s – the collapse of the walkways at the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel? What made the graceful and innovative Tacoma Narrows Bridge twist apart in a mild wind in 1940? How did an oversized waterlily inspire the magnificent Crystal Palace, the crowning achievement of Victorian architecture and engineering? These are some of the failures and successes that Henry Petroski, author of the acclaimed The Pencil, examines in this engaging, wonderfully literate book. More than a series of fascinating case studies, To Engineer is Human is a work that looks at our deepest notions of progress and perfection, tracing the fine connection between the quantifiable realm of science and the chaotic realities of everyday life.”

    • I have both texts and while I have not read Hamming’s work in some time I do not recall these works being that much related except in their shared use of engineering in the title. If I recall correctly Hamming’s book is more so about finding a way to solve numerical problems and so-called systems engineering (which is really just rational decision theory by another name); whereas Petroski’s work is about the evolution of the design process via failure. Moreover, I am pretty sure Hamming doesn’t get into detail about Philosophy of Science (which you think it would given the title…maybe I am recalling incorrectly on this though) but Petroski gets right into that via a very fun way of describing a syllogism (without ever using the term) and how scientists / engineers go about corroborating their hypothesis (he uses the term confirmation which he shouldn’t have but it is clear from context that he was talking about corroboration).

      It would be fair to say from a personal perceptive I did not like this particular work by Hamming. Petroski’s book is excellent though.

      Other works by Hamming that might be worth checking out are Methods of Mathematics (quite excellent in my view), and The Art of Probability (not that great IMHO…tries to be another William Feller and at that point you might as well just read Feller if you want such a perspective).

  3. In the first edition of his book Numerical Methods for Scientists and Engineers (1962), the epigraph was “The purpose of computing is insight, not numbers.” In the second edition the epigraph became “The purpose of computing is not in sight.”

  4. I’ve read it a long time ago, and I liked it, or should I say: I like the genre. Unfortunately, it seems that not many people (scientists, engineers, scholars, artists, etc.) contribute to the genre. But there gems here and there. Instead of the usual Feynman reference, maybe something like Weber, M. (1917): Science as a Vocation or Krugugman, P. (1993): How I Work?

  5. < It gives me some nostalgia, thinking about a time when it was expected that students could do all sorts of math

    Well I dunno. Students who work with me on population genetics are expected to do math. I guess that makes
    me behind the times…

  6. .

    I feel a similar nostalgia for these writers, and love Richard Hamming’s work generally…but it should be pointed out that these authors were *not* writing for everyone. Rather, they were writing for a select economically and socially privileged slice of people (largely white men) who could be expected to have this particular sort of background.

    What’s happened since is that we’ve expanded the mandate of who we expect to empower and to teach. That’s a good thing, and it’s worth remembering even as we also reminisce about the lovely, breezy style of the period. (and, of course, it isn’t *all* lovely).

  7. I feel it must be pointed out, whenever reading a comment from David L, that his comments are made possible only because they build on centuries of environmental degradation, exploitation of the poor and voiceless, and general misery. I’m sure he does not dispute this, as it is true and obvious, but nonetheless it must be pointed out *every single time,* especially if someone dares to express any sort of enjoyment of David L’s work. This has been a public service announcement.

    • Thank you for this announcement!

      As someone who not infrequently dares to expresses enjoyment (and sometimes even appreciation!) of David L’s work, I will make sure to alert you each time I do so, to give you the opportunity to remind me of those historical ills.

  8. > a time when it was expected that students could do all sorts of math … 50 years earlier

    I’d be shocked if people weren’t saying the same thing about ‘students these days’ 50 years ago as well. (It’s not quite the same but ‘Why Johnny Can’t Add’ dropped 48 years ago).

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