The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge
A new book by Princeton University Press, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, features Institute for Advanced Study founding Director Abraham Flexner’s classic essay of the same title, first published in Harper’s magazine in 1939, and includes a new companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director and Leon Levy Professor at the Institute.
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, the founding Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the man who helped bring Albert Einstein to the United States, describes a great paradox of scientific research. The search for answers to deep questions, motivated solely by curiosity and without concern for applications, often leads not only to the greatest scientific discoveries but also to the most revolutionary technological breakthroughs. In short, no quantum mechanics, no computer chips.
This brief book includes Flexner’s timeless 1939 essay alongside a new companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the Institute’s current Director, in which he shows that Flexner’s defense of the value of “the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge” may be even more relevant today than it was in the early twentieth century. Dijkgraaf describes how basic research has led to major transformations in the past century and explains why it is an essential precondition of innovation and the first step in social and cultural change. He makes the case that society can achieve deeper understanding and practical progress today and tomorrow only by truly valuing and substantially funding the curiosity-driven “pursuit of useless knowledge” in both the sciences and the humanities.
Praise for The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge
“Flexner and Dijkgraaf argue that basic research—driven by curiosity, freedom and imagination—is a proven and essential seed for the revolutionary technologies that fuel the economy, transform society, and provide solutions for the world’s problems. A thoughtful appeal for long-term thinking in a time full of short-term distractions.” —Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet Inc.
“These two eloquent essays are timely and timeless treasures that remind us why and how the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake has transformed humanity and human affairs. The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge is a gift to all those concerned with the world of tomorrow.” —Sean B. Carroll, author The Serengeti Rules and Brave Genius
“In essays written more than seventy years apart, the founding and current directors of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study demonstrate how human progress has depended--quite unexpectedly--on unfettered scholarship carried out by talented, obsessively curious individuals. The time lag from their discoveries to practical benefit will be long and the path unpredictable. But here is the bottom line: as strange as it seems, humanity’s future is likely to depend on society’s greatly increased support for fundamental, seemingly ‘impractical’ research.” —Bruce Alberts, University of California, San Francisco, and former editor-in-chief of Science magazine
“The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge is excellent. Dijkgraaf's essay is a remarkable piece of writing that eloquently puts Flexner's essay in historical context, revealing the influence of his vision on the twentieth century and reevaluating it in the light of the twenty-first.” —Carlo Rovelli, author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics