“Deep Thinking” – The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

Posted: June 15, 2017 in Uncategorized

A short, provocative book about why “useless” science often leads to humanity’s greatest technological breakthroughs

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.

  1. Grace Heaps says:

    When people feel micromanaged, or restricted, they are not going to be the ones to discover great things that will advance human technology and experience. I thought about NASA while reading this. Getting into space really was mostly a power play against Russia, feeding our competitive spirits, but what practical use did traveling to the moon have? Although immediate benefits may be difficult to see, so many spin-off technologies have their roots in NASA research, improving lives (ballpoint pens, artificial limbs, water purification, etc.) to even saving or prolonging life (improved highway safety, ventricular assist device, etc.) None of these inventions would have been possible if we as humans hadn’t been curious enough to explore beyond our own world. Exploration and curiosity fuels advancement. I hope that science and discovery simply for the joy of learning will continue to be funded and appreciated.

  2. You’d think more persons would understand this. Unfortunately, what most often passes for innovation is in fact simply new ways of addressing the bottom line, which is to say, immediate financial results. While it might be foolish to imagine corporations will get the bigger picture and think in terms of the longer haul, that is precisely why government has a responsibility to fund research in a variety of fields, and not just spend a full third of our tax dollars on military buildup.

  3. Jordan Franchina says:

    I agree with Grace. As a senior in the sciences here at the U, I have seen much of the curiosity that students have restricted by funding for specific, practical ‘innovations’. Yes, there was more creativity in the spectroscopy lab I worked in, but still limited by the budget that NSA gave us.
    Some classes I have taken, like quantative analysys, have given students the freedom to come up with their own project and explore what is interesting to them. Without the freedom to explore curiosity, all ‘innovations’ will be are cheap life hacks rather than revolutionary products and ideas.

    • I think the phrase ‘life hacks’ capture that gist of this situation quite nicely. Because we’re always fanatically concerned with meeting the bottom line, or amassing a fortune, it becomes incumbent upon researchers to stick as many variables and possible and minimize the possibility of accidents. The result of this ‘wisdom’ is the mere reproduction of the status quo. It is well to recall that most great discoveries were the result of sheer accident, or occurred in moments of idle reverie. A survey of the social (Biagioli) and somatic (Dear) history of science and technology will reveal this time and again.

  4. A. Anderson says:

    The trouble will all this is that very few people today are willing to invest resources in something that does not have any obvious benefits. This is because short-term thinking is more natural to us than long-term thinking. It’s easy to criticize the people in charge for stifling innovation, but ask yourself- If you were in charge of a large organization with expectations and quotas to meet, would you be willing to give several thousand dollars to a couple researchers to play with some weird toys and hope they find something useful?

    • Yes, I would. In fact, I give away things, including money, all the time. To me, it’s an investment in individuals and community. If I give my friend Hilary a nice guitar, I will have nice music to hear, and I will find joy in the pleasure she derives from the instrument. If I give my friend Sam one of my paintings, for which I would normal charge several hundred dollars, he feels better about himself and then I don’t have to worry so much about him at night. This was once the way the world went around. Not such much in the age of transnational corporations. Though individuals and corporations did once make this sort of non-bottom-line investment. Flexner is just one example. Further, our government, as is still the case in Europe, once generously funded education, the arts, and even the sciences, merely so that we had them. We see an appeal for this very thing in the recent readings by Schaffer, Schleiermacher, and Schelling. The thought is simply that education and cultivation are good, even necessary, for democracy. But now that American is no longer a democracy the repeals have become simply another part of the daily news slough.

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