The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge
By Abraham Flexner
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The World of Tomorrow
On April 30, 1939, under the gathering storm clouds of war, the New York World's Fair opened in Flushing Meadows, in Queens. Its theme was The World of Tomorrow. Over the next eighteen months, nearly forty-five million visitors would be given a peek into a future shaped by newly emerging technologies. Some of the displayed innovations were truly visionary. The fair featured the first automatic dishwasher, air conditioner, and fax machine. The live broadcast of President Franklin Roosevelt's opening speech introduced America to television. Newsreels showed Elektro the Moto-Man, a seven-foot tall, awkwardly moving aluminum robot that could speak by playing 78-rpm records, smoke a cigarette, and play with his robot dog Sparko. Other attractions, such as a pageant featuring magnificent steam-powered locomotives, could be better characterized as the last gasps of the world of yesterday.
Albert Einstein, honorary chair of the fair's science advisory committee, presided over the official illumination ceremony, also broadcast live on television. He spoke to a huge crowd on the topic of cosmic rays, highly energetic subatomic particles bombarding the Earth from outer space. The event has been described as a comedy of errors. Einstein's talk could hardly be understood as the amplification system soon broke down. And the opening act — the capture of ten cosmic rays — ended with a spectacular debacle. The particles were transported by telephone line from the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan to the fairgrounds in Queens, where bells and lights signaled their arrival. But when the tenth ray was captured, a power failure occurred to the great disappointment of the audience, which soon decamped. As the New York Times reported the next day, "The crowd dropped science in favor of a spectacle that they could applaud."
Two scientific discoveries that would soon dominate the world were absent at the World's Fair: nuclear energy and electronic computers. Remarkably, the very beginnings of both technologies could be found at an institution that had been Einstein's academic home since 1933: the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. The Institute was the brainchild of its first director, Abraham Flexner. Intended to be a "paradise for scholars" with no students or administrative duties, it allowed its academic stars to fully concentrate on deep thoughts, as far removed as possible from everyday matters and practical applications. It was the embodiment of Flexner's vision of the "unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge," which would only show its use over many decades, if at all.
However, the unforeseen usefulness came much faster than expected. By setting up his academic paradise, Flexner unintentionally enabled the nuclear and digital revolutions. Among his first appointments was Einstein, who would follow his speech at the World's Fair with his famous letter to President Roosevelt in August 1939, urging him to start the atomic bomb project. The breakthrough paper by Niels Bohr and John Wheeler on the mechanism of nuclear fission appeared in the Physical Review on September 1, 1939, the same day World War II started.
Another early Flexner appointee was the Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann, perhaps an even greater genius than Einstein, of almost extraterrestrial brilliance. Von Neumann was one of the "Martians," an influential group of Hungarian scientists and mathematicians that also included Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner, and Leo Szilard, the physicist who helped draft Einstein's letter to Roosevelt. A well-told story in physics is that when a frustrated Enrico Fermi asked where were the highly exceptional and talented aliens that were meant to find Earth, an impish Szilard replied, "They are among us, but they call themselves Hungarians."
Von Neumann's early reputation was based on his work in pure mathematics and the foundations of quantum theory. Together with the American logician Alonzo Church, he made Princeton a center for mathematical logic in the 1930s, attracting such luminaries as Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing. Von Neumann was fascinated by Turing's abstract idea of a universal calculating machine that could mechanically prove mathematical theorems. When the nuclear bomb program required large-scale numeric modeling, von Neumann gathered a group of engineers at the Institute to begin designing, building, and programming an electronic digital computer — the physical realization of Turing's universal machine. As von Neumann observed in 1946, "I am thinking about something much more important than bombs. I am thinking about computers."
In his spare time, von Neumann directed his team to focus these new computational powers on many other problems aside from weapons. With meteorologist Jule Charney, he made the first numerical weather prediction in 1949 — technically it was a "postdiction," since at that time it took forty-eight hours to predict tomorrow's weather. Anticipating our present climate-change reality, von Neumann would write about the study of the Earth's weather and climate: "All this will merge each nation's affairs with those of every other, more thoroughly than the threat of a nuclear or any other war may already have done."
A logical machine that can prove mathematical theorems or a highly technical paper on the structure of the atomic nucleus may seem to be useless endeavors. In fact, they played important roles in developing technologies that have revolutionized our way of life beyond recognition. These curiosity-driven inquiries into the foundations of matter and calculation led to the development of nuclear arms and digital computers, which in turn permanently upset the world order, both militarily and economically. Rather than attempting to demarcate the nebulous and artificial distinction between "useful" and "useless" knowledge, we may follow the example of the British chemist and Nobel laureate George Porter, who spoke instead of applied and "not-yet-applied" research.
Supporting applied and not-yet-applied research is not just smart, but a social imperative. In order to enable and encourage the full cycle of scientific innovation, which feeds into society in numerous important ways, it is more productive to think of developing a solid portfolio of research in much the same way as we approach well-managed financial resources. Such a balanced portfolio would contain predictable and stable short-term investments, as well as long-term bets that are intrinsically more risky but can potentially earn off-the-scale rewards. A healthy and balanced ecosystem would support the full spectrum of scholarship, nourishing a complex web of interdependencies and feedback loops.
However, our current research climate, governed by imperfect "metrics" and policies, obstructs this prudent approach. Driven by an ever-deepening lack of funding, against a background of economic uncertainty, global political turmoil, and ever-shortening time cycles, research criteria are becoming dangerously skewed toward conservative short-term goals that may address more immediate problems but miss out on the huge advances that human imagination can bring in the long term. Just as in Flexner's time, the progress of our modern age, and of the world of tomorrow, depends not only on technical expertise, but also on unobstructed curiosity and the benefits — and pleasures — of traveling far upstream, against the current of practical considerations.
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Who was Abraham Flexner, and how did he arrive at his firm beliefs in the power of unfettered scholarship? Born in 1866 in Louisville, Kentucky, Flexner was one of nine children of Jewish immigrants from Bohemia. In spite of sudden economic hardship — the Flexners lost their business in the panic of 1873 — and with the help of his older brother Jacob, Abraham was able to attend Johns Hopkins University, arguably the first modern research university in the United States. Flexner's exposure to the advanced opportunities at Johns Hopkins, which were comparable to those at leading foreign universities, permanently colored his views. He remained a lifelong critic and reformer of teaching and research. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in classics in just two years, he returned to Louisville, where he started a college preparatory school to implement his revolutionary ideas based on a deep confidence in the creative powers of the individual and an equally deep distrust of the ability of institutions to foster such talent.
Flexner first rose to public attention in 1908 with his book The American College: A Criticism with a strong appeal for hands-on teaching in small classes. His main claim to fame was his 1910 "bombshell report," commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation, on the state of 155 medical schools in North America, branding many of them as frauds and irresponsible profit machines that withheld from students any practical training. He didn't hesitate to label institutions as disgraceful, shameful, or even fictional. Chicago was characterized as "the plague spot of the country." The effectiveness of the Flexner Report is the stuff of advisory committee dreams. It led to the closure of almost half of the medical schools and the wide reform of others, starting the age of modern biomedical teaching and research in the United States.
Flexner's efforts and vision led to his joining the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1912, lending him added stature and resources as an influential force in higher education and philanthropy. He soon became its executive secretary, a position he held until his retirement in 1927. It was in this capacity that the ideas underlying his essay "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge" would form. It would finally be published in Harper's magazine in October 1939, but it began as a 1921 internal memo prepared for the board. In the 1920s, Flexner carefully studied institutions of higher education across Europe, from the ancient colleges of England and France to the modern research universities and institutes of Germany, with their strong links to industry. An opportunity to give the 1928 Rhodes Trust Memorial lectures in Oxford while in residence at All Souls College crystalized his ideas about the future of universities and research institutions. An expansion of his well-received three lectures was published as Universities: American, English, German (Oxford 1930). The Great Depression and the political unrest leading to another world war in the thirties would only sharpen his arguments for the need for independent scholarship.
Flexner was given the opportunity to put his lofty vision into practice when he was approached in 1929 by representatives of Louis Bamberger and his sister Caroline Bamberger Fuld. The Bambergers had sold their massive, eponymous Newark department store to Macy's a few weeks before the Wall Street crash, leaving them with a large fortune. Their original intent was to found a medical institution without racial, religious, or ethnic biases, but Flexner convinced the benefactors to set up an institute exclusively dedicated to unrestricted scholarship. In 1930, he became the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
The mission and vision of the Institute expanded drastically with the turn of events in Europe. The first scholars, including Einstein, arrived in Princeton in 1933, just when Hitler came to power and his draconian laws prompted an exodus of Jewish scientists from Germany. Flexner worked with his brothers Simon and Bernard and the Rockefeller Foundation to bring as many scholars as possible to the United States. This influx of European talent would dramatically alter the global balance of knowledge. In May 1939, Flexner wrote in his last annual director's report, "We are living in an epoch-making time. The center of human culture is being shifted under our very eyes. ... It is now being unmistakably shifted to the United States. ... Fifty years from now the historian looking backward will, if we act with courage and imagination, report that during our time the center of gravity in scholarship moved across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States." Flexner did as much as anyone to make this happen. When Abraham Flexner died in 1959 at age 92, his obituary appeared on the front page of the New York Times along with an editorial concluding, "No other American of his time has contributed more to the welfare of this country and of humanity in general."
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It was Flexner's lifelong conviction that human curiosity, with the help of serendipity, was the only force strong enough to break through the mental walls that block truly transformative ideas and technologies. He believed that only with the benefit of hindsight could the long arcs of knowledge be discerned, often starting with unfettered inquiry and ending in practical applications.
Flexner articulates well the effect of the groundbreaking investigations into the nature of electromagnetism by Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell — recall that the year 1939 saw the introduction of FM radio and television to the United States. Remarkably, on the wall of Einstein's home office hung small portraits of these two British physicists. There is a famous, but most likely apocryphal, anecdote that when William Gladstone, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, visited the laboratory of Faraday in the 1850s and inquired what practical good his experiments in electricity would bring the nation, Faraday answered, "One day, Sir, you may tax it." The equations were never patented, but it is hard to think of any human endeavor today that doesn't make use of electricity or wireless communication. Over a century and a half, almostall aspects of our lives have literally been electrified.
In the same way, in the early twentieth century the study of the atom and the development of quantum mechanics were seen as a theoretical playground for a handful of often remarkably young physicists — one spoke of Knabenphysik, boys' physics — with little immediate consequences. The birth of quantum theory was long and painful. The German physicist Max Planck described his revolutionary thesis, first proposed in 1900, that energy could only occur in packets or "quanta" as "an act of desperation." In his words, "I was willing to make any offer to the principles in physics that I then held." His gambit played out very well. Without quantum theory, we wouldn't understand the nature of any material, including its color, texture, and chemical and nuclear properties. These days, in a world totally dependent on microprocessors, lasers, and nanotechnology, it has been estimated that 30 percent of the U.S. gross national product is based on inventions made possible by quantum mechanics. With the booming hightech industry and the expected advent of quantum computers, this percentage will only grow. Within a hundred years, an esoteric theory of young physicists became a mainstay of the modern economy.
It took nearly as long for Einstein's own theory of relativity, first published in 1905, to be used in everyday life in an entirely unexpected way. The accuracy of the global positioning system (GPS), the space-based navigation system that provides location and time information in today's mobile society, depends on reading time signals of orbiting satellites. The presence of the Earth's gravitational field and the movement of these satellites cause clocks to speed up and slow down, shifting them by thirty-eight milliseconds a day. In one day, without Einstein's theory, our GPS tracking devices would be inaccurateby about seven miles. Again, a century of free-flowing thinking and experimentation led to a technology that literally guides us every day.
The path from exploratory blue-sky research to practical applications is not one-directional and linear, but rather complex and cyclic, with resultant technologies enabling even more fundamental discoveries. Take, for example, superconductivity, the phenomenon discovered by the Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes in 1911. Certain materials, when cooled down to ultralow temperatures, turn out to conduct electricity without any resistance, allowing large electric currents to flow at no costs. The powerful magnets that can be so constructed have led to many innovative applications, from the maglev transport technology that allows trains to travel at very high speeds as they levitate through magnetic fields to the fMRI technology used to make detailed brain scans for diagnostic and treatment purposes. (Continues...)
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