The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

Celebrating "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge"
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Robbert Dijkgraaf
Current IAS Director and Leon Levy Professor
“The progress of our modern age, and of the world of tomorrow, depends not only on technical expertise, but also on unobstructed curiosity and the benefits—and pleasures—of traveling far upstream, against the current of practical considerations.”

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge features founding Director Abraham Flexner’s classic essay of the same title, first published in Harper’s magazine in 1939, and a new companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director and Leon Levy Professor at the Institute.

Craig A. Tovey of Science Magazine reviews The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (Princeton University Press, March 2017) by founding IAS Director Abraham Flexner with a companion essay by current IAS Director Robbert Dijkgraaf. The book, Tovey writes, "makes a strong case for science done for science's sake," reflecting on Flexner's advocacy for "unfettered inquiry that, paradoxically and unexpectedly, has often resulted in extraordinary utility." Dijkgraaf's essay, Tovey writes, "weaves Flexner’s personal...

Scott McLemme of Inside Higher Ed reviews The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (Princeton University Press, March 2017) by founding IAS Director Abraham Flexner with a companion essay by current IAS Director Robbert Dijkgraaf. Of the book, McLemme writes of Dijkgraaf's observation that “a healthy and balanced ecosystem would support the full spectrum of scholarship, nourishing a complex web of interdependencies and feedback loops.” The problem now, writes McLemme, is that such a healthy and balanced intellectual ecosystem is no less dependent on a robust economy in which...

On April 30, 1939, under the gathering storm clouds of war, the New York World’s Fair opened in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Its theme was The World of Tomorrow. ... Some of the displayed innovations were truly visionary. ... Albert Einstein, honorary chair of the fair’s science advisory committee, ... spoke to a huge crowd on the topic of cosmic rays, highly energetic subatomic particles bombarding the Earth from outer space. But two scientific discoveries that would soon dominate the world were absent at the fair: nuclear energy and electronic...

Dick Ahlstrom of the Irish Times writes:

A remarkable discovery was made in a laboratory at Trinity College Dublin about a year ago, one that may change all our lives in the future. Or maybe not. It was the unexpected detection of a new kind of bubble, one with unusual properties that might tell us something important about the expansion of the universe. 

... Great you might say, more ...

By radically reducing the amount of scientific research U.S. scientists can do, the president’s budget willfully ignores 400 years of thinking about innovation and knowledge—and seven decades of the United States’ advantage in the world. “It’s like we’ve forgotten we went through a scientific revolution,” says Robbert Dijkgraaf, Institute Director and Leon Levy Professor. “Facts can be shown with experiments. There’s a systematic way you can learn about the world.” . . .

Instead of propelling the country toward that gleaming tomorrow, this budget invests in the grimmest possible...

Gillian Tett of the Financial Times reviews The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (Princeton University Press), founding Director Abraham Flexner's influential 1939 essay newly republished with a companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director and Leon Levy Professor. The book, Tett writes, argues “that the most powerful intellectual and technological breakthroughs usually emerged from research that initially appeared 'useless,' without much relevance to real...

Klaus Taschwer of Der Standard reviews The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (Princeton University Press, March 2017) by founding IAS Director Abraham Flexner with a companion essay by current IAS Director Robbert Dijkgraaf. Of Flexner's original essay, first published in Harper's magazine in 1939, Taschwer writes, "he delivered a convincing...

On the face of it, usefulness seems more definable in the fields of science, where it can be expressed in theses, discoveries, inventions and products. But even here usefulness can be elusive. 

In his article “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” (contained in the titular book by Abraham Flexner, with a companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf, current IAS Director and Leon Levy Professor), Flexner...

“In some sense, the evidence of the usefulness of science is all around us,” Robbert Dijkgraaf said. “It’s in our back pockets, in our blood streams. We are governed by science—everybody is, even the people who aren’t supportive of it. But we are simply not aware of it anymore. It’s infinitely close by and infinitely far away.”

Read more of Alan Burdick's New Yorker article about his trip aboard an Institute bus headed to the March for Science with two dozen IAS scientists, amid the...

"Flexner makes two points that seem to me particularly important right now, especially for policy makers thinking about higher education in the United States. One is that it is impossible to predict what research will turn out to be "useful" and therefore it’s foolish to try; some of the most important discoveries in the history of science have been the fruits of work that began with no clear practical application. The second point is equally applicable to the arts, sciences, and humanities: The fact that work in those areas brings "satisfaction to an individual soul bent upon its own...

John Timmer of Ars Technica reviews The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (Princeton University Press, March 2017) by founding IAS Director Abraham Flexner with a companion essay by current IAS Director Robbert Dijkgraaf. Of the book, Timmer writes, "In it are two essays, one from Dijkgraaf titled The World of Tomorrow and the original Usefulness of Useless Knowledge penned in 1939 by Abraham Flexner, who helped found the Institute for Advanced Study. Both offer defenses of what they loosely...

What is the best use of scientists’ time, energy, and grant funding? Should researchers investigate the fundamental nature of the universe…or cure cancer? Or is there a way to ensure that we can do both, even if financial support is harder to get?

Click here to learn more and listen to Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director and Leon Levy Professor, discuss these ideas and more on Science Friday with Ira Flatow.

What is "useless" knowledge? Can it ever become useful? And how can this approach to scientific research be applied further afield? 

To be really useful, it’s always a second order of fact. It’s always something that comes as a spin-off of your primary drive, which is the innate curiosity. You want to discover what holds the world together. 

Hear more from Robbert Dijkgraaf, Institute Director and...

“Perhaps the biggest fact of the last three hundred years of history is that life expectancy tripled in the West and in many other parts of the world. But it's not connected to one discovery or one battle being fought—it is a tremendous driver and it's a circle. Not only does useless thinking give useful applications, but they can lead again to useless things.” 

Hear more from Robbert Dijkgraaf, Institute Director and Leon Levy Professor, on The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, the influential essay by founding Director...

Book Trailer: The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge
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