Essay: “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge”

Advanced Knowledge: The Institute for Advanced study, Princeton

Exactly 80 years ago, the noted American education reformer and founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Abraham Flexner (1866 – 1959), published an essay in the Harper’s magazine with the captivating title, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge”. In it, he passionately argues the case for unfettered freedom in the pursuit of basic research – so-called “useless” knowledge – in the domains of science, humanities and social sciences.

Albert Einstein with Abraham Flexner at the IAS in the 1950s

Flexner’s essay is a joy to read for its clarity, objectivity and eloquence. Reproduced below are extracts of his elegant essay, with minor edits for the contemporary reader. Brief historical notes follow.

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge by Abraham Flexner

From a practical point of view, intellectual and spiritual life is, on the surface, a useless form of activity, in which men indulge because they procure for themselves greater satisfactions than are otherwise obtainable.  But, I sometimes wonder whether there would be sufficient opportunity for a full life if the world were emptied of some of the useless things that give it spiritual significance.

We may look at this question from two points of view: the scientific and the humanistic or spiritual. Let me take the scientific first. I recall a conversation which I had some years ago with Mr. George Eastman on the subject of use. Mr. Eastman … had been saying to me that he meant to devote his vast fortune to the promotion of education in useful subjects. I ventured to ask him whom he regarded as the most useful worker in science in the world. He replied instantaneously: “Marconi.” I surprised him by saying, “Whatever pleasure we derive from the radio or however wireless and the radio may have added to human life, Marconi’s share was practically negligible.” I shall not forget his astonishment on this occasion. He asked me to explain. I replied to him somewhat as follows:

“Mr. Eastman, Marconi was inevitable. The real credit for everything that has been done in the field of wireless belongs to Professor Clerk Maxwell, who in 1865, carried out certain abstruse and remote calculations in the field of magnetism and electricity. Other discoveries supplemented Maxwell’s theoretical work during the next fifteen years. Finally in 1887 and 1888, the detection and demonstration of the electromagnetic waves which are the carriers of wireless signals – was solved by Heinrich Hertz in Berlin. Neither Maxwell not Hertz had any concern about the utility of their work; no such thoughts ever entered their minds. Hertz and Maxwell could invent nothing, but it was their useless theoretical work which was seized upon by a clever technician. Who were the useful men? Not Marconi, but Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz.

In the domain of higher mathematics, almost innumerable instances can be cited. For example, the most abstruse mathematical work of the 18th and 19th centuries was the “Non-Euclidian Geometry”. Its inventor, Gauss, though recognized by his contemporaries as a distinguished mathematician, did not dare to publish his work on “Non-Euclidian Geometry” for a quarter of a century. As it turns out, the theory of relativity with all its infinite practical bearings would have been utterly impossible without the work which Gauss did at Gottingen.

Again, what is known now as “Group theory” was an abstract and inapplicable mathematical theory. It was developed by men whose curiosity led them into strange paths; but “Group Theory” today is the basis of the quantum theory of spectroscopy which is in daily use by people who have no idea as to how it came about.

Then, there is whole calculus of probability, which was discovered by mathematicians whose real interest was the rationalization of gambling. It has failed in the practical purpose at which they aimed, but it has furnished a scientific basis for all types of insurance, and vast stretches of physics are based upon it.

Let us look in another direction – the domain of medicine and health science. Following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the German government funded the great University of Strasbourg. Its first professor of anatomy was Wllhelm von Waldeyer. In his Reminiscences, he relates that among the students who went with him to Strasbourg during his first semester, there was a youngster of seventeen by name Paul Ehrlich. As Waldeyer remarks in his Reminiscences:

I noticed quite early that Ehrlich would work long hours at his desk, completely absorbed microscopic observation. Moreover, his desk gradually became covered with colored spots of every description. I asked what he was doing with all his rainbow array of colors on his table. Thereupon, his young student supposedly pursuing the regular course in anatomy looked up at me and blandly remarked, “Ich probierre.” (“I am trying” or “I am just fooling.”) I replied to him, “Very well. Go on with your fooling.” Soon, I saw that without any teaching or direction whatsoever on my part, I possessed in Ehrlich, a student of unusual quality.

Waldeyer wisely left him alone. What resulted? Erhlich’s experiments were applied by a fellow student to staining bacteria and thereby assisting in their differentiation. Erhlich himself developed the staining of blood film with dyes on which our modern knowledge of the morphology of the blood corpuscles, red and white, is based. Not a single day passes in which hospitals the world over do not employ Erhlich’s technique in the examination of the blood.

I am not for a moment suggesting that everything that goes on in laboratories will ultimately turn into some unexpected practical use. I am pleading for the abolition of the word “use”, and for the freeing of the human spirit. To be sure, we shall thus waste some precious dollars. But what is infinitely more important is that we shall be striking the shackles off the human mind and setting it free for the adventures which have taken (George) Hale, (Ernest) Rutherford and Einstein and their peers millions upon millions of miles into the uttermost realms of space. And all the waste that could be summed up in developing the science of bacteriology is as nothing compared to the advantages which have accrued from the discoveries of Pasteur, Koch, Ehrlich, Theobald Smith, and scores of others.

Thus, it becomes obvious that one must be wary in attributing scientific discovery wholly to any one person. Almost every discovery has a long and precarious history. Science, like the Mississippi, begins in a tiny rivulet in the distant forest. Gradually, other streams swell its volume. And the roaring river that bursts the dikes is formed from countless sources.

Skipping some paragraphs, Flexner went on to promote the mission of the IAS.

The Institute is, from the standpoint of organization, the simplest and least formal thing imaginable. It consists of three schools – a School of Mathematics, a School of Humanistic Studies, a School of Economics and Politics. Each school is made up of a permanent group of professors, and an annually changing group of members. Each school manages its own affairs as it pleases. Within each group, each individual disposes of his time and energy as he pleases. They may work with this or that professor; they may work alone, consulting from time to time anyone likely to be helpful. No routine is followed; no lines are drawn between professors, members, or visitors. No faculty meetings are held; no committees exist. A mathematician may cultivate mathematics without distraction; so may a humanist in his field, an economist or a student of politics in his. Administration has been minimized in extent and importance.

I can perhaps make this point clearer by citing briefly a few illustrations. A stipend was awarded to enable a Harvard professor to come to Princeton; he wrote asking,

“What are my duties?”

I replied, “You have no duties – only opportunities.”

An able young mathematician, having spent a year at Princeton, came to bid me good-by. As he was about to leave, he remarked:

Now, after a year here, the blinds are raised; the room is light; the windows are open. I have in my head two papers that I shall shortly write.”

“How long will this last?” I asked.

“Five years, perhaps ten.”

“Then what?”

“I shall come back.”

A third example … A professor in a large Western university arrived in Princeton at the end of last December. He had in mind to resume some work with Professor (Charles) Morey, Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University. But Morey suggested that he might find it worthwhile to see Panofsky and Swarzenski (at the Institute). Now he is busy with all three.

“I shall stay, “ he added, “until next October.”

“You will find it hot in midsummer.” I said.

“I shall be too busy and too happy to notice it.”

Thus, freedom brings not stagnation, but rather the danger of overwork! The wife of an English member recently asked:

“Does everyone work until two o’clock in the morning?”

We make ourselves no promises, but we cherish the hope that the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge will prove to have consequences in the future as in the past. The IAS shall exist as a paradise for scholars who, like poets and musicians, has won the right to do so as they please and who accomplish most when enabled to do so.

* * * *

Contextual Notes

When Flexner’s essay appeared in the October 1939 issue of Harper’s, he was already the founding director of the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) for nine years. He could see for himself the great intrinsic rewards of doing cutting edge research motivated solely by curiosity without concerns for applications. He could summon examples after examples how this seemingly idyll pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, sometimes blossom unexpectedly into great applications that have improved the lives of millions. More than any other person, it was Flexner who championed the idea of a research institute where the brightest scholars can do basic research freely without the shackles of teaching or administrative duties. The result is the birth of the unique IAS located on the fringe of Princeton University.

From its inception in 1930, the IAS has consistently been one of the world’s leading institute for basic research, with a past faculty that reads like a Who’s Who in the arts and sciences. Very selectively, they included Albert Einstein, who joined the Institute in 1933 and remained there until his death in 1955, Kurt Gödel, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Erwin Panofsky, Hetty Goldman, Homer A. Thompson, John von Neumann, George Kennan, Alan Turing, Hermann Weyl, and Clifford Geertz among others.

Kurt Godel with Albert Einstein at the IAS in the 1950s



‘The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” is also the title of a new book that reproduces Flexner’s essay with a companion essay by Robert Dijkgraaf, the IAS’s current director. Published by Princeton University Press, 2017.


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