Scholar Talks: Curious Paradox: The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge
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Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director and Leon Levy Professor, Institute for Advanced Study
in conversation with
William P. Kelly, The New York Public Library’s Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Research Libraries
The classic essay "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge," written by the Founding Director of the Institute for Advanced Study, Abraham Flexner, is reprinted this year, with a new companion essay by current IAS director, Robbert Dijkgraaf.
In 1939 Abraham Flexner wrote that humanity’s great scientific and creative advances have been spurred by people who were “driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity...curiosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It is not new. It goes back to Galileo, Bacon, and to Sir Isaac Newton, and it must be absolutely unhampered.”
It was this idea that spurred Flexner to found the Institute for Advanced Study. Intending it as a “paradise for scholars,” IAS attracted the likes of Albert Einstein, John Von Neumann, Kurt Gödel, Hetty Goldman, J. Robert Oppenheimer, George Kennan, and Freeman Dyson. Among the faculty in its 85-plus-year history have been 33 Nobel Laureates and 41 of the 56 Fields Medal recipients. They have generated major advances in nuclear energy, computing, physics, and countless other fields.
But, in 2017, Robbert Dijkgraaf writes, “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.”
Can the demands of now be reconciled with the vision that Flexner laid out almost 90 years ago? Dijkgraaf will speak about this question and the vitality of Flexner's ideas as we head toward the future.
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