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The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

4.31  ·  Rating details ·  366 ratings  ·  58 reviews
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 mos
...more
Hardcover, 104 pages
Published February 21st 2017 by Princeton University Press (first published 1939)
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Satyajeet
Jun 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is a fascinating paper about the importance of curiosity in fundamental discoveries. The pursuit of utility limits human curiosity and the freedom of scientists to explore. Flexner believed that scientists should not be bothered to produce utility but instead pursue problems out of sheer curiosity and eventually utility could be derived from their findings. He also pleads for the abolition of the word 'Use' when it comes to fundamental science. He believes that scientists should be free to ...more
Maria
May 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: in-2017
Firstly, I found it difficult to get into Dijkgraaf's commentary, having not read the original essay, nor knowing a good deal of the knowledge Dijkgraaf takes for granted (what can I say? I grew up reading classics and romance novels, not analyses of the world post World War II. Previous to that I'm reasonably (or quite, depending on the time period), knowledgable).

Flexner's essay, however, is wonderful. It's interspersed with short examples of knowledge or technology we take as useful (for ins
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Kevin Hu
Jun 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
For those who care about curiosity, learning, and flourishing, this is certainly worth a read, especially given its short length. The two pieces each offer something different. Flexner's essay, for which the volume is named, makes a good case for "useless knowledge", pointing towards how much of our useful things in the present are predicated upon the useless knowledge. And of course, hearing of his experiences working to sculpt the Institute for Advanced Study left me with good feels about the ...more
Toshi Parmar
Aug 05, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Thought provoking paper with one star deducted for pretentiousness that registered off the charts.
Noah
May 13, 2017 rated it it was ok
I found some good stuff here. The bits of intellectual history were fun, even inspiring.

But on the whole it was a bit ... overwrought. Lots of saccharine stuff about the human spirit taking wings and soaring high over the warm brown turds of practicality. Take this passage which summarizes nicely the book's main thrust:

"The real enemy of the human race is not the fearless and irresponsible thinker, be he right or wrong. The real enemy is the man who tries to mold the human spirit so that it wil
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Pete Wung
Nov 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This little monograph gives us two related essays. The first essay is contemporary and written by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the present director of the Institute of Advanced Studies. In this essay he serves up a history lesson of sorts, giving us some autobiographical detail on Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Institute of Advanced Studies. He goes into the Flexner’s beliefs which was the founding principles of the Institute as well as its role in the history of American innovation as the ...more
Siddhartha Banerjee
Jul 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
Flexner's thesis rests on the fact that everyone should be free to pursue his or her interests without regard for usefulness of the pursuit: a laudable ideal, but it is just too idealistic. Having recently finished American Kingpin, where libertarian ideals clash with the need for individuals to have a responsibility towards society, this essay's message was all the more abhorrent to me. It seems to shirk the responsibility that researchers have to today's society in favour of potential unclear ...more
Craig Werner
Aug 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: education
A brief, eloquent defensive of simple curiosity as the driving force of intellectual endeavor. Flexner, the founder of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, NJ, provides numerous examples of how even the most "practical" advances grew from research conducted with not even a ghost of a thought for application. Roughly as contemporary and necessary now as when it was first published in 1939. ...more
Lyndsey
Jun 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: higher-ed, shorties
Bought this for my dad for Father's Day. Previewed it (of course) before I give it to him on Sunday.

What a perfect, tiny but powerful argument for the importance of curiosity as the essential foundation for education and discovery.
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Linda
Presents an urgently needed corrective to the current pull away from non-product-based science, and indeed, under our current government, a wholesale resistance to science generally!
Bill Lawrence
Sep 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
A little gem. An introduction to a paper from 1939, both about 40 pages. The value of research for research sake and a useful dig at modern metrics. A lot to be learnt regarding the dubious paths we have followed in the last 30 years.
Nikhil Waiker
Jan 30, 2021 rated it liked it
A 100 page advertisement for IAS, Princeton.
Deane Barker
Apr 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Wonderful book form of a classic, 80-year-old essay from Harpers. One of my favorite pieces of writing. Not all who wander are lost, and we fail to appreciate the shocking number of innovations discovered by people who were just kinda screwing around...
Richard Zhu
Mar 30, 2017 rated it liked it
Written in the 1940s, Flexner's essay uses many examples to sell intellectual freedom in the pursuit of basic science and fundamental research. Flexner cites many examples to support this argument (penicillin, Manhattan Project, spaceflight program), but I'm not convinced by its relevance today, especially in an age where investment in scientific research is dwindling, funding grants are more difficult to get, and the absolute number of 'academic' researchers that America can support is tapering ...more
Peter
Jun 12, 2018 added it
Flexner’s essay argues the centrality of curiosity to human invention, and Dijkgraaf’s essay is an echo.

A paean to freeing the human spirit by offering unfettered opportunity to pursue passions and interests, Abraham Flexner’s 1939 essay makes the case for self-directed learning that we are hearing choruses of today. He does so in the context of his experience as the founder of Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study, an institute that housed at different times such scientific greats
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Claire
Jun 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: teaching, politics
Both essays are a quick read (done in a day). Both are inspiring and focused on the reminder that the core inventions of the modern era came about not from direct and continuous focus on achieing set and measurable academic goals, but instead through focusing on building knowledge for the sake of knowing. The application of knowledge comes after the tomfoolery. This is especially important as in the US today we devalue the humanities and arts, or discourage those who aimlessly pursue their inter ...more
Andrew Krause
May 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The first essay was rather "meh" (I would have preferred just a biographical sketch, or maybe reading it second), but I really enjoyed the main essay. I keep feeling stymied/bogged down by the idea that whatever I do has to be useful, even viewing recreation activities in the lens of "helping me relax will help me be more productive later." But paradoxically, this means that I accomplish little of what I want to do, since I spend so much time worrying about the final product or the impact what I ...more
Rod Van Meter
Jun 20, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The title piece is essentially a long essay by the founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. It's good. But I think the introductory essay by IAS's current director, Robbert Dijkgraaf, titled "The World of Tomorrow," is an even clearer defense of fundamental research:
1. it advances knowledge for its own sake;
2. it gives us new tools and techniques;
3. it attracts smart people;
4. the knowledge created becomes public domain; and
5. it spawns startup companies.
I'm not sure all of th
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Dhanya Jothimani
Oct 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
With the funding agencies focusing more the applied research, Abraham Flexner (the founding director of Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton) reiterates the importance of the basic research. Most research is result of curiosity and imagination. As he quotes, not all basic research would yield a successful solution.

The distinction between the applied and not yet applied research research is nice and much wanted explanation. There are examples from various fields of Science and Mathematics -
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Dinesh
Jan 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is a brilliant book that emphasizes why curiosity-driven scientific research is, in the long term, more advantageous over applied scientific research. Using examples of far-reaching scientific technologies (like electricity and the radio), the authors delve into its roots to show how scientists, driven by curiosity, slowly build knowledge. These were applied as technologies only when the knowledge received critical mass. This non-linear aspect to scientific endeavours, as the book argues, r ...more
Ryan Fohl
Oct 28, 2018 rated it liked it
An inspiring quick read for all the scientists and curious. Full of pull quotes. “The real enemy of the human race is not the fearless irresponsible thinker, be he right or wrong. The real enemy is the man who tries to mold the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings”


What I learned: there is applied science and not yet applied science. Flexner helped to bust up the fake medical schools, improve American education, and brought Einstein and company to Princeton. He also wanted th
...more
Brittany
Oct 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018, non-fiction
I have long been a supporter of funding going towards ideas, studies, etc. that may not have an immediate or obvious practical purpose largely because I think there are far too many essential things in use today that came about because at some point, someone decided to take that risk. I also don't think human creativity or imagination neatly fits into a "in 5 years the estimated return on this investment will be X amount of dollars so please fund me" template. Many people today will slam ivory-t ...more
Joseph Carrabis
Oct 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is a wonderful little book. Literally on all counts, too. It's little. You can read it cover to cover in about an hour (I did one evening with a glass of wine at hand) and it's wonderful, basically a treatise for persuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge rather than for financial gain (the difference between basic and applied research).
Definitely suggested to people in the intellectual property arena.
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Shuby Deshpande
The real enemy of man is one who tries to mold the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings.

A magnificent piece on the beauty of human knowledge, the restless nature of human curiosity, and the resulting philosophical gratification and spiritual elevation it brings from understanding nature's deepest secrets. Knowledge must be pursued to knowledge's sake, without the consideration of it's practical utility. Leave that to us engineers :)
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Reed
Jun 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
Both the intro essay and the original essays are inspiring reads. The intro offers historical context for Flexner, who we have to thank for overhauling our entire system of medical training. The essay itself holds up remarkably well.

My only qualm is the lack of images, which would have been easy to add in the intro.

Overall: a small gem of a book, easy to read in one or two sittings. This would make a superb gift for any scientist, professor, or physician.

student
Jul 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Enjoyed the second half which is more than a description of a man.
I was reminded that passion driven works bear authentic outcomes rather than need of society or understanding of our age.
Let the genuineness get engaged in deepeest understanding of their quest. let's put our expectations aside. may be what they are about to find out is overwhelmingly more profound or beautiful than our hope for future.
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Ingrid
Jan 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A clear argument for how humanity learns and achieves its many "successful" creations...initially through curiosity and not need. Solving the larger more abstract puzzles may or may not eventually lead to useful solutions...but need is not the primary mover. To solve problems, people need to be curious about the world around them and understand that there really is no "useless" knowledge because we must explore what we don't know before we can add that to the database of what we know. ...more
Susan
Nov 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
It is what it is: a small treatise on the usefulness of not thinking about usefulness. It seems unfinished, but it was never meant to be a book or a final word on anything, so it still gets 4 stars.

There is enough here to get your brain spinning off, so if you're in need of some quick, light, not-so-modern-but-still-relevant inspiration/validation, this one is for you.
...more
J. Danielle Wingler
Stay curious.

Flexner has written about a problem we are still struggling with in our current education systems and society. We need to encourage questions and freedom to pursue curiosity. The pure pursuit of knowledge benefits us in the long-term and provides the foundation for the applied sciences.
Wilte
Dec 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ub
In praise of not-yet-applied research, two nice essays on the use of fundamental research. One from Dijkgraaf (2017), the other from Flexner from 1939.

Nice (probably fake) anecdote about Faraday, when Chancellor of the Exchequer visited the lab and asked about the practical good, Faraday said "One day, Sir, you may tax it"

Knowledge is the only resource that increases when used.
...more
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Abraham Flexner was an American educator, best known for his role in the 20th century reform of medical and higher education in the United States and Canada.[1]

After founding and directing a college-preparatory school in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, Flexner published a critical assessment of the state of the American educational system in 1908 titled The American College: A Criticism. His
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“[...] throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely teh desire to satisfy their curiosity” 2 likes
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