In 1939 the influential American education reformer Abraham Flexner published an essay in Harper’s Magazine titled “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” In it he promoted the well-funded, free pursuit of scientific inquiry, arguing that great scientists were “driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.”
Flexner was the founding director of The Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey. The institute was created in 1930 to provide a haven for “curiosity-driven” scientific research. Albert Einstein was one of its first professors, to be followed by a wave of European scientists fleeing fascism.
Robbert Dijkgraaf is the current director of IAS, and as you might expect, he has big historical shoes to fill. Dijkgraaf is a mathematical physicist with a bent towards creativity (he’s a painter, too) and no small knowledge of the workings of black holes.
A new book published by The Princeton University Press, using the same name as the essay, includes Flexner’s original essay plus a companion piece by Dijkgraaf.
In it, Dijkgraaf brings us up to date on developments in research over the subsequent decades, including the effect of tightened funding. He argues that Flexner’s insistence on the value of “the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge” is as important now, if not more so, than it was nearly 80 years ago.
Dijkgraaf spoke at the Amazon Meeting Center in downtown Seattle on May 9. He was introduced by Microsoft technical fellow and famed space tourist Charles Simonyi.
Listen to the full version below: