Through the Geomblog, I got to a post in “Lowerbounds, Upperbounds” which reproduces a speech given by Hamming. Here’s what Hamming had to say about great researchers:
I claim that some of the reasons why so many people who have greatness within their grasp don’t succeed are: they don’t work on important problems, they don’t become emotionally involved, they don’t try and change what is difficult to some other situation which is easily done but is still important, and they keep giving themselves alibis why they don’t.
What is also interesting is that Hamming was probably not a very happy man:
I had incipient ulcers most of the years that I was at Bell Labs. I have since gone off to the Naval Postgraduate School and laid back somewhat, and now my health is much better. But if you want to be a great scientist you’re going to have to put up with stress. You can lead a nice life; you can be a nice guy or you can be a great scientist. But nice guys end last, is what Leo Durocher said. If you want to lead a nice happy life with a lot of recreation and everything else, you’ll lead a nice life.
Nice guys end last. Right. Are we to understand that bad guys end first? Right. Fun.