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A 1939 essay resonates today, persuasively advocating for science for science’s sake

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

Abraham Flexner
Princeton University Press
2017
99 pp.
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When Abraham Flexner died in 1959 at the age of 92, his obituary appeared on the front page of The New York Times and concluded, “No other American of his time has contributed more to the welfare of this country and of humanity in general.” Why did Flexner merit this extraordinary accolade? As founding director of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study in the 1930s, Flexner led the United States to supplant Europe as the center of scientific scholarship, bringing Albert Einstein, Hermann Weyl, John von Neumann, Amalie Noether, and others to his “paradise for scholars” to work in intellectual freedom with no official duties.

Flexner believed in the intrinsic value of the scientist’s curiosity and in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. His 1939 essay, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, advocates for unfettered inquiry that, paradoxically and unexpectedly, has often resulted in extraordinary utility.
Guglielmo Marconi’s invention of the radio, Flexner argues, was a minor additional step after James Maxwell’s formulation of the laws of electricity and magnetism and Heinrich Hertz’s detection of electromagnetic waves. Likewise, the human world would be helpless without electricity, yet in 1831 when Michael Faraday enabled its use by discovering the induction of electric current, his goal was to understand the universe, not utility.

Flexner describes other important outcomes of pure research, such as blood cell detection and the entire field of bacteriology. He writes in vivid vignettes, evoking Paul Ehrlich’s multicolored desk as he dyed cells in medical school in one paragraph and an accidental water stoppage that precipitated the discovery of rayon dry-spinning in another.

Flexner is perhaps most eloquent when he is most general, portraying both the arts and the sciences as expressions of the free human spirit: “A poem, a symphony, a painting, a mathematical truth, a new scientific fact, all bear in themselves all the justification that universities, colleges, and institutes of research need or require.”

Robbert Dijkgraaf, the present director of the Princeton Institute, weaves Flexner’s personal story together with compelling new examples that support Flexner’s thesis in a companion piece written to accompany the newly republished essay. Taking its title from the 1939 World’s Fair theme, “The World of Tomorrow,” Dijkgraaf’s essay recounts how the inventions unveiled at that World’s Fair—the dishwasher, the fax machine, and the air conditioner—were soon overshadowed by atomic energy and the electronic digital computer. (Remarkably, both of these innovations were largely conceived at the Princeton Institute.)

Dijkgraaf beautifully expounds on Flexner’s view of the lengthy and often unpredictable research path. The World Wide Web, he notes, was invented to help particle physicists collaborate at the CERN particle accelerator. After a century, Einstein’s theory of relativity found application in our daily lives; GPS would be impractically inaccurate without it.

Science can also provide a path to more science. A century after superconductivity was discovered, it is now essential to high-precision scanning in medicine. Moreover, it was essential for building the extremely powerful magnets in the accelerator where the Higgs boson—the final component of the Standard Model of particle physics—was discovered.

My one criticism of this book is its greater emphasis on scientific theory than on scientific observation. Of the approximately 130 different citations for the Nobel Prize in physics, more than a quarter concern inventions—most, such as laser cooling, the bubble chamber, and the electron microscope, for enabling observation. More than another 25% highlight observational discoveries. An accurate portrayal of the scientific community must emphasize both theorists and the tinkerers who figure out how to cool within one ten-thousandth of a kelvin above absolute zero and how to “see” things far smaller than the wavelength of visible light or farther away than half the lifetime of the universe.

Flexner insists that scientific inquiry needs no external justification, yet his essay is chiefly a justification on grounds of societal utility. This first struck me as inconsistent, but after reflection, I see it as wise to muster multiple arguments in support of science.

Dijkgraaf suggests that the United States may be approaching a crisis in science scholarship support. Federal R&D funding as a fraction of GDP is barely one-third of the 2.1% that it was in 1964, and much of that funding is predirected toward specific societal problems rather than basic research. Granting institutions, Dijkgraaf explains, respond to public or shareholder accountability pressure by favoring predictable projects.

This book makes a strong case for science done for science’s sake. Such arguments may prove useful in persuading the public to avoid the long-term cost of short-term thinking.

About the author

The reviewer is at the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA 30332, USA.