The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

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Celebrating "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge"
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...

A forty-year tightening of funding for scientific research has meant that resources are increasingly directed toward applied or practical outcomes, with the intent of creating products of immediate value. In such a scenario, it makes sense to focus on the most identifiable and urgent problems, right? Actually, it doesn’t. In his classic essay “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” Abraham Flexner, founding Director of the Institute, describes a great paradox of scientific research....

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...

Book Trailer: The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge