Pearls of Wisdom from Martin Hellman – 2015 ACM A.M. Turing Award Laureate

What do you feel like the role of science is in promoting international understanding?
I think it plays a very important role and I’ll give you a specific example. In the ‘80s, I worked with the group Beyond War; we were working primarily in America although it was somewhat international. We were trying to get Americans to see the need for changing our nation’s national security strategy if we were going to survive in the long term. It was not just our nation that needed to change, but the only nation that we could change as Americans, was our own.

Dorothie and I went over to Moscow in the fall of ’84 to see whether we could do something with the scientific community, and we came back just unbelievably energized because we met people within the Soviet scientific community who were in the forefront of what became Gorbachev’s reform movement. If you look at his reform movement, there were a lot of scientists involved, and so a ‘science to science’ approach ended up being the right way to bridge the gap and have a meaningful dialogue with the Soviets. Gorbachev came to power six months later, in March 1985, and about a year-and-a-half after that he had consolidated enough power to lift censorship. We then were able to publish a book, Breakthrough: Emerging New Thinking, in Russian there and in English in the West which defined the equations of survival in the nuclear age. It broke with many of the taboos of the earlier Soviet era and really surprised people. Breakthrough even got an endorsement from Gorbachev. So science can play a very important role in increasing international understanding.

What advice would have helped you as a young researcher? Were you ever at crossroads where you really felt, ‘Ok, maybe I should head in a different direction’?
Yes, that’s a great story. In my first year of graduate work, I got my master’s degree by taking a full course load, so I had very little time for research. In my second year, I was taking a ¾ course load, so I had more time for research, but not a lot. I felt like I’d made a lot of progress early on, but then hit a brick wall and felt like I was getting nowhere for several months. Somewhat deflated, I thought, ‘Who am I to think I can make an original contribution to knowledge?’, which is the definition of a PhD thesis, so maybe I should drop out of the program.

Over spring break I decided to focus on research and see if that might help my frame of mind. I took the weekend off after finals and then was going to pretend I had a 9-5 job and do forty hours of research. I sat down Monday morning in our little apartment in married student housing, and I played with this problem where I felt like I’d hit a brick wall. Amazingly, within half an hour, I had a key theorem that I knew in my gut, I couldn’t quite tell you why, had broken the log jam and was the key to my thesis. It took my advisor, Tom Cover, and me a month to tie all the loose ends together. But that theorem, proved in half an hour was key.

Diane Crawford (2016)

Photo by Richard Morgenstein – courtesy of ACM (pictured: Martin Hellman)



It’s fascinating that you were able to see it. Was it more of a feeling that you knew that was the key?
I can’t tell you why I knew that theorem was critical, but I was absolutely right. It was the key result. So here’s my advice to young researchers; I went from almost dropping out of the PhD program to having my thesis pretty much solved in the matter of half an hour. So don’t get discouraged. Almost everyone I’ve talked to has had that kind of self-doubt. Remember that. That’s important advice, that you may go through something similar.

Another piece of advice would be, ‘Don’t be afraid of appearing foolish.’

Don’t wait until you know everything that you ought to know before starting research in an area. If you wait for that, you’ll never get started, because there’s always more to learn.

Another good example: when I did the work for which this (ACM A.M.) Turing Award is being given, I knew probably one-tenth of the relevant mathematics about cryptography that I know today. There was a lot of number theory that I should have known but didn’t. It was foolish, it was arrogant in a way for me to try to do research in cryptography back in 1976 knowing as little mathematics as I knew. Yet I did my best work at that point.

So don’t wait until you know everything that you ought to know before starting research in an area. If you wait for that, you’ll never get started, because there’s always more to learn. Don’t be afraid to try things that you shouldn’t try. In fact, that key result of my thesis that I told you I derived in half an hour, a key part of that involved Markov chains, and I didn’t know how to solve Markov chains for what’s called their ‘stationary distribution’. I read the chapter in a book that said how to do it, but I came up with my own way to do it and my different way of looking at it was central to coming up with the theorem that solved my thesis.

Another example of that: Andy Viterbi, who was one of the founders of Qualcomm came up with Viterbi decoding partly, maybe even largely because he didn’t understand sequential decoding as well as he wanted to, so he came up with his own way of looking at it. That discovery won him the (U.S.) National Medal of Science, the United States’ highest such award. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t understand something and try looking at it from a different way. Make sure you understand it and do what you need to do to really feel grounded.