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The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge
Abraham Flexner
With a companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf

Hardcover | 2017 | $9.95 | £8.95 | ISBN: 9780691174761
104 pp. | 4 1/2 x 7
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eBook | ISBN: 9781400884629 |
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A Q&A with Abraham Flexner
Institute of Advanced Study Book Page

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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.

This brief book includes Flexner's timeless 1939 essay alongside a new companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the Institute's current director, in which he shows that Flexner's defense of the value of "the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge" may be even more relevant today than it was in the early twentieth century. Dijkgraaf describes how basic research has led to major transformations in the past century and explains why it is an essential precondition of innovation and the first step in social and cultural change. He makes the case that society can achieve deeper understanding and practical progress today and tomorrow only by truly valuing and substantially funding the curiosity-driven "pursuit of useless knowledge" in both the sciences and the humanities.

Abraham Flexner (1866–1959) was the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study, one of the world's leading institutions for basic research in the sciences and humanities. Robbert Dijkgraaf, a mathematical physicist who specializes in string theory, is director and Leon Levy Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study. A distinguished public policy adviser and passionate advocate for science and the arts, he is also the cochair of the InterAcademy Council, a global alliance of science academies, and former president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.


"[Flexner’s] 1939 essay . . . advocates for unfettered inquiry that, paradoxically and unexpectedly, has often resulted in extraordinary utility. . . . Dijkgraaf . . . weaves Flexner’s personal story together with compelling new examples that support Flexner’s thesis. . . . [He] beautifully expounds on Flexner’s view of the lengthy and often unpredictable research path."--Craig Tovey, Science

"[R]eaders will discover a timeless essay by Abraham Flexner written in 1939 on the Usefulness of Useless Knowledge and a companion essay . . . by [Robbert Dijkgraaf] which shows that Flexner’s vision is perhaps more relevant today. . . . During recent decades, scholarship and funding for STEM education have reached a critical stage that was foreseen by Flexner. [Dijkgraaf] states that scientists and scholars have a role to play in educating the public on the value of useless knowledge."--Jean Worsley, NSTA Recommends

"Flexner’s essay needs to be reread, not just by government officials and business leaders but by scientists and voters as well."--Gillian Tett, Financial Times

"There is a timeless relevance about Flexner’s words in this essay written 78 years ago."--Wan Lixin, Shanghai Daily

"A small and hugely powerful book."--Karen Shook, Times Higher Education

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Table of Contents:

The World of Tomorrow - Robbert Dijkgraaf 1
The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge - Abraham Flexner 49
About the Authors 89
Further Reading 91

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