Saturday, September 5, 2015

"The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge" - Notes to Self

Why this article is important: It reminds us that the advances in science and technology owe itself to  the advances in fundamental science. More importantly, the research in fundamental sciences weren't and aren't  done with the aim of arriving at something immediately useful to mankind. And all this was and is done only with the purpose of satiating a human being's curiosity. Hopefully this will answer queries about the need for  research, be it Large Hadron Collider or Chandrayan or Mangalyan ( India's Mars Mission) or The Voyager or...

I chanced upon this article titled 'The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge' by Abraham Flexner written in 1939. The article starts with the author telling the readers towards the end of the first paragraph  "I shall concern myself with the question of the extent to which the pursuit of these useless satisfactions proves unexpectedly the source from which undreamed-of utility is derived." It moves on to the question of whether the idea of useful in the materialistic world ( as in 1930s) has become too narrow for the human spirit and proceeds to look at the question from scientific and humanistic spirit.

Flexner moves on to a conversation he had with George Eastman where Mr Eastman, who has a refined taste in music, mentions Marconi as the most useful worker in science. Marconi's name was mentioned by Eastman due to the invention of the Radio. Flexner proceeds to explain how the building blocks for Radio were already in place due to the work done by Maxwell and Hertz and Marconi put them together.

Flexner says that Maxwell and Hertz didn't have the use of the theoretical work in their mind and where driven only by curiosity. To quote Flexner again, "curiosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It is not new. It goes back to Galileo, Bacon, and to Sir Isaac Newton, and it must be absolutely unhampered. Institutions of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity and the less they are deflected by considerations of immediacy of application, the more likely they are to contribute not only to human welfare but to the equally important satisfaction of intellectual interest which may indeed be said to have become the ruling passion of intellectual life in modern times."

 Flexner proceeds to give more example from Science, Maths and Medicine. He talks about the importance of Faraday's work and how the focus was on revealing the secrets of the universe and utility was never Faraday's focus. He also talks about the contribution of Gauss ( non-euclidean Geometry) and the importance of this to theory of relativity. He mentions Group Theory and Probability to strengthen his case about the originators never worrying about the utility or usefulness of their work. Flexner then quotes the example of Paul Ehrlich whose work resulted in the science of bacteriology. Flexner concludes that the work of Pasteur, Koch, ehrlich and score of others would never have been possible if the idea of possible use had come up in their mind.

He then goes on to talk about how the advances in modern science or inventions have been the built on the work of multiple men and women and how we must be weary about attributing scientific discovery to any one person. To quote him "Almost every discovery has a long and precarious history. Someone finds a bit here, another a bit there. A third step succeeds later and thus onward till a genius pieces the bits together and makes the decisive contribution."

Flexner continues to emphasize the importance of research for its own sake through this paragraph

"I cannot deal with this aspect exhaustively, but I may in passing say this: over a period of one or two hundred years the contributions of professional schools to their respective activities will probably be found to lie, not so much in the training of men who may to-morrow become practical engineers or practical lawyers or practical doctors, but rather in the fact that even in the pursuit of strictly practical aims an enormous amount of apparently useless activity goes on. Out of this useless activity there come discoveries which may well prove of infinitely more importance to the human mind and to the human spirit than the accomplishment of the useful ends for which schools have been founded."

By continuing this emphasis, he moves on to the topic of the importance of intellectual and spiritual freedom and says that people who want to reatrain the human thought is the real enemy of man "The real enemy of the human race is not the fearless and irresponsible thinker, be he right or wrong. The real enemy is the man who tries to mold the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings"

Flexner explains how this idea has conceived and founded the University of Berlin or the John Hopkins University. He goes on to say "It is the idea to which every individual who values his immortal soul will be true whatever the personal consequences to himself. Justification of spiritual freedom goes, however, much farther than originality whether in the realm of science or humanism, for it implies tolerance throughout the range of human dissimilarities. In the face of the history of the human race what can be more silly or ridiculous than likes or dislikes founded upon race or religion? Does humanity want symphonies and paintings and profound scientific truth, or does it want Christian symphonies, Christian paintings, Christian science,..." 

Flexner then talks about the Institue of Advanced Studies, how it is organized and gives examples of how the structure of the organization helps scientists.  He ends the article with this paragraph "We make ourselves no promises, but we cherish the hope that the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge will prove to have consequences in the future as in the past. Not for a moment, however, do we defend the Institute on that ground. It exists as a paradise for scholars who, like poets and musicians, have won the right to do as they please and who accomplish most when enabled to do so."

In summary, It is a very well written article that starts with the problem statement ( pursuit of seemingly useless acts result in undreamt of useful stuff for mankind), talks about curiousity and its importance, gives examples from the field of science to strengthen the authors case and finally ties up all this to the motto of Institute of Advanced studies with examples about how the idea of the institute has been found useful to the scientists.

The complete article in pdf format can be read here 

Further reading about Institute of Advanced Studies (pdf file)


  1. Good summarization with an admix of interleaved notes. Please keep up the good work, will ya?