Monday, December 17, 2012

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

Abraham Flexner was one of the founders of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. The other day I came across a wonderful essay, titled “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” (PDF) that he wrote in 1939, on the relevance of curiosity-driven basic research:
    “Much more am I pleading for the abolition of the word "use," and for the freeing of the human spirit. To be sure, we shall thus free some harmless cranks. To be sure, we shall thus waste some precious dollars. But what is infinitely more important is that we shall be striking the shackles off the human mind and setting it free...”
Flexner goes through historic examples in which progress came about by scientists not thinking about applications but driven to understand nature, which resulted in unforeseen breakthroughs that changed our lives. Needless to say, his examples (Maxwell's equations, Bose-Einstein Condensation, atom spectroscopy...) could not take into account the most stunning developments in the later part of the century, based on our increasingly better understanding of quantum mechanics that underlies pretty much all the little technological gadgets we put under the tree.

But despite his essay being 70 years old, the points are as timely today as they were then, and they have only grown more pressing: Without basic research, progress is not sustainable and applications will eventually run dry. Believing that applied research produces technological advances is like saying electricity comes from the holes in your outlet.

Flexner was also ahead of his time in clearly realizing that science is a community enterprise, driven by social dynamics and the interaction of experts, and not by single individuals working on their own:
    “[O]ne must be wary in attributing scientific discovery wholly to anyone person. 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. Science, like the Mississippi, begins in a tiny rivulet in the distant forest. Gradually other streams swell its volume. And the roaring river that bursts the dikes is formed from countless sources.”


  1. Hi Bee,

    My fascination with science from its very beginnings had no other motivator other than curiosity; if that ever changes I'll no longer have any use for it.

    ”The best scientist is open to experience and begins with romance - the idea that anything is possible.”

    -Ray Bradbury, Los Angeles Times, August 9, 1976



  2. Flexner writes movingly about science as a social enterprise, but isn't this a sentiment well expressed by "standing on the shoulders of giants"? Deep waters always stand being rediscovered, but if Flexner was ahead of his time surely it was only insofar as something was briefly forgotten.

  3. Hi Bee,

    The ideas expressed in your article seem in concert with the understanding of historical change and how advancement is made.

    What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua...that's the only name I can think of for the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement.Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Part 1 Chapter 1

    See Also: Oh Dear!... How Technology has Changed Things

    It is true that as a society we have made exceptions for the genius? It is equally true that the genius can be very disruptive too, while they affront human decency and respect for others? In the name of justice, fight for equality.

    Shall we allow them then the genius their respite while showing their impatience for others, for not being able to see? So, we move past the monoliths of our societal system icons to further research? Away from the idea of a perfect symmetry, as an energy based idea to materialistically transform?

    So too, there then is this adventure for sure, personally motivated as has been mentioned. That many quest to see, where others cannot see? Where some have the ability to integrate the interrelationships that fire neurons. Raise questions toward insight and application. Use neurons to further build complex architecture, as they move forward gathering the information and knowledge in theory application.

    Ultimately can we say that discovery can be implied in the LHC, as a platform for foundational constructionist material. Then, how is one to say the astrophysical has no correspondence and to say, that "the material" has no application? :) What use?


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  6. With the rapid accumulation of "useless" or theoretic knowledge a situation has been created in which it has become increasingly possible to attack practical problems in a scientific spirit. Not only inventors, but "pure" scientists have indulged in this sport. I have mentioned Marconi, an inventor, who, while a benefactor to the human race, as a matter of fact merely "picked other men's brains."The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

    I get a sense in the opening of the quote about practicality and the need for a firm planting with regard to your entertaining theory?;)

    You have to push this statement further to examine the context of the issue around the development of radio transmissions with regard to Fessenden? To see the use of such application in the future, five years hence?

    If you can see that way then you know how to capitalize on product development once to realize the use of let's say "fractal antennas" for instance and the many companies that benefit from it?


  7. So for sure, some talk about "self similarity" as a basis of astrophysical observances of orbital diagrams, as a sign of the microscopic, in the cosmos.

    Is nature so revealing then that what we see on such microscopic levels can no longer be seen because there is no way to measure it? It has to be discovered just as Nathan Cohen discovered it, while having an interest as a radio guy. Uniting his science with an opportune talk given by another unrelated event?

  8. "Maxwell's equations" were 20 prolix sermons in Cartesian coordinates with two irrelevant parameters. Unlovable Oliver Heaviside hauled out four tiny equations. One detected magnetic monopole symmetrizes Maxwell's equations. Single quantum monopole detectors are easy to build and operate. A blip could ruin what is necessarily true. Remember the Homestake dry-cleaning fluid kerfuffle.

    Management rewards process not product. CERN's magnet quench dump line brazes had punctilious EN ISO 900x certification. Erasto Mpemba, Barnett Rosenberg, Barry Marshall, Roy Plunkett, Charles Goodyear, William Perkin, Charles Hall, Tracy Hall, Percy Spencer, and the Welsh village of Merthyr Tydfil had no right to discover anything. The Allais effect must be crap - don't look. Hire the risk-free.

  9. A beautiful essay indeed! It also somehow reminds me of the great essay "The two cultures" by C.P. Snow from about the same time. (It can be found here:

  10. I strongly support the curiosity based research, but at the case when such a research has an apparent practical applications, it should get the priority. Why mainstream physicists aren't curious about evidence cold fusion, for example? Because if it would be confirmed, it would threat the perspective of research of alternative methods of energy production/conversion/transport and/or storage.

    That is to say, the scientific inquisitiveness has its own apparent limits, when it could threat the existence of scientists. The problem exists in conflict of interest of scientists and the rest of society, which is paying whole this fun: the scientists refuse to engage in research, which is potentially very useful, but it would mean, some other scientists would lose their jobs.

    The perspective of job represents the strict limit of scientific inquisitiveness even outside the scope of cold fusion research, as R. Wilson recognized and named before years. When you find a solution, the research ends - which threats the whole existence of researcher. So that the scientists know, they should compete in finding of solution, but they should never accept its existence. This is parasitic aspect of scientific community behavior.

  11. There exist another less or more apparent limits of curiosity motivated research. With increasing of the volume of information, the scientists simply cannot remember them all, which leads into duplicity of research. Which again makes no problem for scientists as such, because they will get payed for the same research multiple-times. Such a redundancy represents a problem for the rest of society, which is paying all this fun from its taxes.

    In addition, many results of basic research are becoming obsolete faster, than they could be used for another research and they're reexamined again and again. The players of strategical games like the Civilization know very well, the spending of resources into research has its apparent limit, when its results have no usage not only for human society, but even for scientists itself. Because the scientific lobby behaves like the selfish meme payed from mandatory fees, it tends to ignore the utilitarian limits of curiosity-based research. It's supported in it with private sector, the existence of which depends on the governmentally funded projects.

  12. I agree with this article.

    Too many people think fundamental not immediately applicable and monetarizable research is dispensible.

    In particular in difficult times the voices demanding a stop of such activities get louder and more numerous :-/


  13. "Flexner was also ahead of his time in clearly realizing that science is a community enterprise, driven by social dynamics and the interaction of experts, and not by single individuals working on their own"

    This is not really accurate for the biggest paradigm changes in science.

    While very few scientists work in complete isolation, think of Newton's discovery of universal gravitation, Galileo's relatively lonely battle for a new science, Darwin and Wallace working independently and relatively alone on Evolution, Einstein in 1905 (patent inspector 3rd class) working relatively, :) , alone in Bern, Gregor Mendel working alone on his genetics experiments and being totally ignored when he got the beautiful results.

    Sometimes science-by-committee is necessary for within-paradigm progress, but for paradigmatic change it is individuals working relatively alone who show everyone else the new path.

    Same as it ever was.

    Discrete Scale Relativity


  14. Oops, how could I have forgotten to put Mandelbrot on that list. He decscribed himself as a nomad, and others described his juorney to fractal modeling as that of a "lone maverick".

    Then there is Feigenbaum.

    Probably other readers could add many additional names to the list.

  15. "Believing that applied research produces technological advances is like saying electricity comes from the holes in your outlet".
    Brilliant Bee, I must quote you on this!

  16. Uncle,

    1897: Tesla files his first patent application dealing specifically with wireless transmission.

    If one knows how to piece meal a resource, then to package it, one soon learns that what was free can now, be controlled and capitalized on.

    Tesla's product was the predecessor of what we take for granted today and are charged for? A whole industry now.

    Governments sold the rights too, to make money, where before, just an antenna would pick up TV, just as if, google advertising was an add on, now which company do you use?

    It's called metering and is a classic case of how to meter anything, to make money off of.

    Tesla had to be stopped?



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