This is one more post on the Hamming series about how to select your research career topics.
It takes courage to think about important unsolved problems. (Excepting of course the officially canonized problems, such as Hilbert’s, Fermat’s Last Theorem, P = NP, …). But the solutions that made a difference were to problems that were not even recognized as such!
The initial cost of tackling an important problem is high; if it is a hard, important problem, chances are that you will not solve it at the first go, and that publication will not happen as fast as tacking smaller, but more constrained, problems. Young researchers may think that this is the only way to start an academic career. And advisors would of course discourage their students if they propose a problem that is somehow ‘non-mainstream’ (Science is a social activity after all).
There are careers built on a single experimental effect. Not because it is particularly relevant, but because it is extremely solid and running more experiments demonstrating that it appears in different circumstances will produce more publications.
Hamming mentions how the first success often changes a socially-handicapped researcher with self-esteem problems into a courageous one. Maybe having a solid effect may act as a catalyst, but it is always important to see it as a stepping stone, not a solid rock to build a home and not to move around much.
Hamming reflects about the lack of courage he perceives in the generation after him, compared to that of his own. He ascribes the greater amount of courage to the enormous confidence gained from the experience of emerging from a tight spot in the second world war to a glorious victory, and working hard at it. He doesn’t blame the present generation, though, and acknowledges that their experience is very different.