Discover more from MILLER’S BOOK REVIEW 📚
Not Useless: We Just Don’t Know What It’s for Yet
The Mother of Invention? Fiddling and Patience. Reviewing Abraham Flexner’s ‘The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge’
How important was Albert Einstein? I guess it depends on how much you enjoy GPS. It might depend on your appreciation of other things, as well of course. Lasers, solar panels, and stock-market modeling all depend to one degree or another on Einstein’s noodling.
Einstein wasn’t trying to improve the accuracy of global positioning satellites; they didn’t exist then. Nor did Einstein intend to invent lasers; he was puzzling over Max Planck’s quantum theory of radiation and developed the idea of photons, an essential precursor.
In many ways Einstein embodies what his professional patron and benefactor Abraham Flexner called “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” in a landmark 1939 essay by that title. “Almost every discovery has a long and precarious history,” wrote Flexner. “Someone finds a bit here, another I bit there. A third step succeeds later and thus onward till a genius pieces the bits together and makes the decisive contribution.”
In his essay, Flexner fingered radio as an example. History credits Guglielmo Marconi with the invention in 1895. But Marconi built on the work of two predecessors, Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz, both of whom advanced electromagnetism in the decades before. Radio signals are carried on electromagnetic waves; without Maxwell and Hertz, Marconi would have nothing.
But, importantly for Flexner, neither Maxwell nor Hertz were trying to create radio. Like Einstein fiddling with Plank’s quantum theory, they were annoyed by unanswered questions and sought to answer them. In so doing, also like Einstein, they were laying accidental foundations for later breakthroughs.
But Who’s Paying? An Inherent Tension
The question behind these stories is simple enough: What’s an idea for? The answer is trickier. It depends on when and how you try to apply it. An idea might appear useless in one context; in another, it could prove the key to innovation and advancement.
That generates some drama because ideas aren’t free. They take resources—usually money, always time—to develop, which puts pressure on ideators to ensure their contributions are useful, immediately so if possible. The trouble is ideas don’t work like that; it usually takes a while for an idea to ferment.
Meanwhile, an idea might appear vapid, pointless, and wasteful before it reaches its potential—if it ever does. It’s tough raising money for research when you can’t promise a return on schedule, or at all. Yes, says Einstein, you can have lasers! Just as soon as someone figures out what this esoteric notion of photons is good for. I’m not exactly sure myself.
I mentioned the downside of this dynamic when reviewing Margaret Heffernan’s excellent book, Uncharted. 3M, a company whose success has depended on the slow percolation of ideas, instituted Six Sigma to eliminate operational inefficiencies. It worked: They successfully reduced inefficiencies. Yeah! And innovation, too. Boo! That result was unplanned but predictable. Creativity often smells like inefficiency if you can’t apply it right away.
Theoretical physicists and tinkerers alike don’t always have an endgame in mind; they follow their curiosity, often their annoyance, trying to answer elusive questions. The answers to those questions might be the key ingredient to valuable advancement—if we can be patient while someone connects a dot or two and finds the right application. But people writing checks are, understandably, not always patient.
Why was Flexner so concerned about the usefulness of useless knowledge?
While Harper’s magazine published Flexner’s seminal essay in 1939, his story goes back quite a few years before. Princeton University Press published a handsome little edition of the essay in 2017 paired with an introduction by Robbert Dijkgraaf, who sketches Flexner’s life.
Flexner swung into public view in 1908 with a critical book on American higher education. Two years later his Flexner Report detailed the subpar standards of American medical schools, resulting in a massive shakeup. “It led to the closure of almost half of the medical schools and the wide reform of others,” writes Dijkgraaf.
In 1912 he went to work with Rockefeller Foundation studying institutions of higher education in America and Europe. Along the way he picked up a set of convictions about research and the institutions that nurtured it; his essay began as an internal memo, written in 1921, for the Rockefeller board.
Flexner’s biggest break, however, came in 1929 when a pair of financial backers bankrolled his growing vision for free-range ideation. The Institute for Advanced Studies emerged a year later at Princeton as a “paradise for scholars.”
Three years after that Flexner welcomed Albert Einstein aboard. Many other European intellectuals evading Hitler came as well, radically altering the future of American innovation. Working at the Institute, for instance, John von Neumann made vital contributions to everything from the atomic bomb to game theory and computing—convenient because I’m not writing and sharing this with a pencil and pigeon.
In his introduction Dijkgraaf explains the five points of Flexner’s vision.
“Basic research clearly advances knowledge in and of itself . . . producing ideas that slowly and steadily turn into concrete application and further studies.”
“Pathbreaking research leads to new tools and techniques, often in unpredictable and indirect ways.”
“Curiosity-driven research” attracts “the very best minds in the world. Young scientists and scholars . . . are trained in completely new ways of thinking and using technology. Once these skills carry over to society, they can have transformative effects.”
“Much of the knowledge developed by basic research is made publicly accessible and so benefits society as a whole. . . .”
“One of the most tangible effects of pathbreaking research appears in the form of start-up companies.”
This last point is essential because it drives economic growth, and Dijkgraaf points out that innovation takes credit for more than half of it. How big a deal is this? In his book Stubborn Attachments, economist Tyler Cowen suggests a thought experiment:
Redo U.S history, but assume the country’s economy had grown one percentage point less each year between 1870 and 1990. In that scenario, the United States of 1990 would be no richer than the Mexico of 1990.
I’ll take all the growth we can get.
“The pursuit of these useless satisfactions proves unexpectedly the source from which undreamed-of utility is derived,” wrote Flexner. He also acknowledged that not every investigation or experiment would yield profitable results. But the point, as he argued, was to create settings for discovery and invention—which happens to be the only way to ensure profitable results in the long run.
“We make ourselves no promises,” said Flexner, “but we cherish the hope that the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge will prove to have consequences in the future as in the past.”
His confidence seems well placed. As Dijkgraaf says, “Knowledge is the only resource that increases when used.”
Of course, the question of who pays still remains. Others can fight about that. The key thing to bear in mind is that what appears as useless noodling in one context might prove invaluable for innovation in another. And the most reliable way make valuable connections is leaving people free to follow their imaginations.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, please hit the ❤️ below and share it with your friends.
Not a subscriber? Take a moment and sign up. It’s free for now, and I’ll send you my top-fifteen quotes about books and reading. Thanks again!