Robbert Dijkgraaf on The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

FlexnerA 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, 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. This brief book includes Flexner’s timeless 1939 essay alongside a new companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the Institute’s current director. Read on for Dijkgraaf’s take on the importance of curiosity-driven research, how we can cultivate it, and why Flexner’s essay is more relevant than ever.

The title of the book, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, is somewhat enigmatic—what does it mean?

RD: Abraham Flexner, an educational reformer and founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study, wrote an essay with this title for Harper’s magazine in 1939. He believed that there was an indispensable connection between intellectual and spiritual life—“useless forms of activity”—and undreamed-of utility.

Cited as a philanthropic hero by Warren Buffett, Flexner was responsible for bringing Albert Einstein to America to join the Institute’s inaugural Faculty, just when Hitler came to power in 1933.

A true visionary, Flexner was acutely aware that our current conception of what is useful might suffice for the short term but would inevitably become too narrow over time. He believed that the best way to advance understanding and knowledge is by enabling leading scientists and scholars to follow their natural curiosity, intuition, and inquiry, without concern for utility but rather with the purpose of discovering answers to the most fascinating questions of their time.

Flexner’s 1939 article is reprinted in the book along with a companion essay that you have written. What did you realize in revisiting Flexner’s ideas?

RD: One large realization is that while the world has changed dramatically in terms of technological progress since Flexner’s time, human beings still wrestle with the benefits and risks of freedom, with power and productivity versus imagination and creativity, and this dichotomy continues to limit our evolution and sometimes leads to abhorrent behavior as we saw during Flexner’s era and which continues to haunt ours today.

A significant difference is that in the twenty-first century, we are increasingly creating a one-dimensional world determined by external metrics. Why? Our world is becoming ever larger and more complex. In order to provide some clarity, we try to quantify that world with share prices and rankings. In the process, we have exiled our intuition and have lost contact with our environment.

We need to return to timeless values like searching for the truth, while being honest about the things we don’t understand. There is also a great need for passion. I wake up every morning with the thought: I want to do something that I feel good about. As a society, we have largely lost that feeling. We need to reconsider: what kind of world do we want exactly? And what new systems do we need to do good things?

Why is curiosity-driven basic research important today and how can we cultivate it?

RD: The progress of our modern age, and of the world of tomorrow, depends not only on technical expertise, but also on unobstructed curiosity and the benefits of traveling far upstream, against the current of practical considerations. Much of the knowledge developed by basic research is made publicly accessible and so benefits society as a whole, spreading widely beyond the narrow circle of individuals who, over years and decades, introduce and develop the ideas. Fundamental advances in knowledge cannot be owned or restricted by people, institutions, or nations, certainly not in the current age of the Internet. They are truly public goods.

But 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 towards 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.

The “metrics” used to assess the quality and impact of research proposals—even in the absence of a broadly accepted framework for such measurements—systematically undercut pathbreaking scholarship in favor of more predictable goal-directed research. It can easily take many years, even decades, or sometimes, a century, as in the case of the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity that were only detected last year, for the societal value of an idea to come to light.

In order to enable and encourage the full cycle of scientific innovation, we need to develop a solid portfolio of research in much the same way as we approach well-managed financial resources. Such a balanced portfolio would contain predictable and stable short-term investments, as well as long-term bets that are intrinsically more risky but can potentially earn off-the-scale rewards. The path from exploratory basic research to practical applications is not one-directional and linear, but rather complex and cyclic, with resultant technologies enabling even more fundamental discoveries. Flexner and I give many examples of this in our book, from the development of electromagnetic waves that carry wireless signals to quantum mechanics and computer chips.

How do curiosity and imagination enable progress?

RD: An attitude aimed at learning and investigating, wherein imagination and creativity play an important role, is essential not only in scientific institutions but in every organization. Companies and institutions themselves need to develop the inquisitive and explorative approach they would like to see in their employees. Organizations are often trapped in the framework of their own thinking. Out-of-the-box thinking is very hard, because one doesn’t know where the box is. At the basis of progress lies a feeling of optimism: problems can be solved. Organizations need to cultivate the capacity to visualize the future and define their position in it.

What conditions are necessary for the spark of a new idea or theory?

RD: If we want more imagination, creativity, and curiosity, we need to accept that people occasionally run in the wrong direction. As a business, institution, or society, we need to allow once again for failure. Encourage workers to spend a certain percentage of their time on the process of exploration. A brilliant idea never appears out of the blue, but is generated simply by allowing people to try out things. Nine times out of ten, nothing results, but something may emerge suddenly and unexpectedly. That free space and those margins of error are increasingly under pressure in our head, our role, our organization, and our society. I am worried about the loss of that exploratory force.

What don’t we know, and how does uncertainty drive advancement?

RD: How did the universe begin and how does it end? What is the origin of life on Earth and possibly elsewhere in the cosmos? What in our brain makes us conscious and human? In addition to these fundamental questions and many others, we are struggling with major issues about time and space, about matter and energy. What are our ideas on this and what questions are we trying to answer? In science, a long process precedes any outcome. In general, the media only has time and space to pay attention to outcomes. But for scientists it’s precisely the process that counts, walking together down that path. It’s the questions that engage us, not the answers.

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. They are the authors of The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.

Marilyn Roossinck: 101 viruses

Viruses are seldom considered beautiful, though visually, many are in fact stunning. While the sheer mention of them usually brings on vigilant hand-washing, some are actually beneficial to their hosts, and many are crucial to the health of our planet. Virus: An Illustrated Guide to 101 Incredible Microbes by Marilyn Roosinck offers an unprecedented look at 101 incredible microbes that infect all branches of life on Earth—from humans and other animals to insects, plants, fungi, and bacteria. Recently, Roosinck answered some questions about her gorgeously illustrated new book.

How did you come to study viruses?

MR: I started college at the Community College of Denver as an adult student (I was 22 years old), with a plan to go take two years of courses and then transfer to nursing school. I took a Microbiology course and when we studied bacterial viruses, I was totally smitten by how amazing viruses were, these very small and simple entities that could change everything! I ripped up my application to nursing school and instead transferred to the University of Colorado to pursue a degree in Biology. There were two biology departments at that time: Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology; and Environmental, Populational and Organismal Biology, so I did a double major and got a degree in both programs. As an undergraduate I did an independent study in a lab working on SV40, a model for many studies on mammalian viruses. I applied to the University of Colorado School of Medicine for graduate school, and I received my Ph.D. from that institution in 1986, doing a thesis on Hepatitis B virus.

Why 101 viruses?

MR: The original plan was to include 100 viruses, a nice round number and enough to allow a broad range of viruses, including those infecting all the major host groups, from bacteria to humans. Near press time the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil was attracting a lot of attention in the press, so we felt it was important to include Zika. We did not really want to remove one of the viruses that were already in the book, because these were chosen carefully, and each entry seemed important for the complete picture, so, borrowing from Hollywood, we decided 101 would also have a nice ring.

How did you choose the viruses described in the book?

MR: Making up the list of viruses to include in the book took a lot of thought. I wanted to cover every type of virus and every type of host. I also wanted to include some viruses that people would be very aware of, like influenza and Ebola. There are more human viruses in the book than those that infect any other host, because they are more thoroughly studied, and most of them are familiar to people. I also wanted to include viruses that were pathogens and those that were not. It may come as a surprise to many people that some viruses benefit their hosts, and several of these are included in the book too. I also got some help from colleagues. After making up the initial list I sent it out to a large number of virologists for comment, and I took these ideas into consideration too. Of course many people were sure that the virus they were studying was the most important virus and should be included, but I tried to ignore this as a basis for inclusion.

Do you have a favorite virus?

MR: It is hard to pick a favorite, there are so many viruses that have a fascinating natural history, or that can dramatically affect their hosts. One of my students in a Virus Ecology course that I teach at Penn State summed it up pretty well. I was introducing the topic of the how poliovirus became a serious problem in the 20th century due to changes in water treatment, and I said, “this is one of my favorite virus stories”. The student replied, “you say that about everything”.

What viruses do you work with in your own lab?

MR: I have spent about 30 years working on Cucumber mosaic virus, a serious crop pathogen that has the broadest host range of any known virus: it can infect 1200 different plant species! This means it has been very successful from an evolutionary point of view, so it is an excellent model for studying virus evolution. For the past decade I also have been studying viruses that infect fungi. My interest in these viruses began when we discovered a fungal virus in Yellowstone National Park that was beneficial to its host, allowing it to survive very high temperatures found in the geothermal areas of the park. This sparked an interest in viruses that help their hosts adapt to extreme environments, and we do a lot of work now on beneficial viruses in plants and fungi. We also are interested in the diversity of viruses, and we have done some studies looking for viruses in wild plants: there are a lot, and most of them are novel.

virus roossinck jacketMarilyn J. Roossinck is professor of virus ecology in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology at Pennsylvania State University. She lives in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Roossinck is the author of Virus: An Illustrated Guide to 101 Incredible Microbes.

New History & Philosophy of Science Catalog

The History and Philosophy of Science 2016 catalog is now available:


Strange Glow In Strange Glow, Timothy Jorgensen relates the story of radiation, including how it helps and harms our health.
Carroll Sean B. Carroll changes the conversation about biology in The Serengeti Rules by describing how life works from the smallest cell to the largest ecosystem.
Morton Finally, Oliver Morton makes the case for geoengineering as a solution to the many challenges posed by climate change in The Planet Remade.

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Feynman on the historic debate between Einstein & Bohr

The golden age of quantum theory put many of the greatest minds of the 20th century in contact with some of the most significant scientific and philosophical questions of their era. But it also put these minds in contact with one another in ways that have themselves been a source of curiosity and ongoing scientific debate.

Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein, two towering geniuses of their time, were both as revered for their scientific contributions as they were beloved for their bursts of wisdom on a wide range of subjects. It’s hard not to wonder just what these men thought of one another. Princeton University Press, which published The Ultimate Quotable Einstein in 2010 publishes The Quotable Feynman this fall. The book includes reflections by Feynman on Einstein, from his memorable mannerisms to his contributions to some of the most heated debates in 20th century science.Feynman quote

Perhaps because of the gap between their career high points, (Einstein died in 1955; Feynman didn’t receive his Nobel Prize until 1965), there are no verified quotes where Einstein alludes to Feynman or his expansive body of work. But Feynman had made observations on the older physicist, several of which revolve around Einstein’s famous 1927 public debate with Niels Bohr on the correctness of  quantum mechanics. Central to the debate was this question: Were electrons, light, and similar entities waves or particles? In some experiments they behaved like the former, and in others, the latter.

In an attempt to resolve the contradictory observations, Einstein proposed a series of “thought experiments”, which Bohr responded to. Bohr essentially took the stance that the very act of measuring alters reality, whereas Einstein insisted that reality exists, independent of the act of measurement. Key to the philosophy of science, the dispute between the two giants is detailed by Bohr in “Discussions with Einstein on Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics”. Richard Feynman is quoted as commenting on the debate:Feynman quote 2

An Einstein Encyclopedia contains a section on the Einstein-Bohr debates, as well as a wealth of other information on Einstein’s career, family, friends. There is an entire section dedicated to righting the various misconceptions that swirl around the man, and another on his romantic interests (actual, probable, and possible).

In spite of their differences, Bohr and Einstein were friends and shared great respect for each others’ work. Until Einstein’s death 3 decades later, they continued their debates, which became, in essence, a debate about the nature of reality itself.  feynman quote 3

Check out other new Einstein publications this fall, including:

An Einstein Encyclopedia
The Road to Relativity

Happy 101st Birthday, Martin Gardner

Today, Oct. 21, 2015, celebrates what would have been the 101st birthday of world renowned popular mathematics and science writer, Martin Gardner.

Martin GardnerGardner was a man who wore many hats — he was a skeptic, mathematician, philosopher, writer, magician and influence to millions of people worldwide. He garnered a huge following, whether he was writing literary reviews of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or examining the intricacies of stage magic. Publishing over a hundred works and writing columns for decades in several magazines, Gardner altered the common perceptions of mathematics and became an inspiration to multiple generations in the twentieth century.

Gardner was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, going on to earn a degree in Philosophy from University of Chicago. He then served four year in the U.S. Navy and moved to New York City, where he met his wife, Charlotte Greenwald. He has two sons, Jim and Tom.

While in New York, Gardner worked as a writer for Humpty Dumpty, one of America’s longest-running children’s magazines, producing stories and designing paper folding activities. This led him to Scientific American, where he would remain for decades. Through his Mathematical Games column from 1956-1981, he’s credited with introducing and sustaining the interest in recreational math. Through the words and designs of Gardner, math evolved into an enjoyable and entertaining exercise. Those who were once intimidated by math’s complicated algorithms discovered a newfound appreciation and pleasure in solving puzzles and riddles.

Gardner served as such an inspiration and instructor to aspiring magicians that the Academy of Magical Arts offered him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. Gardner wrote the Encyclopedia of Impromptu Magic and his column “Martin Gardner’s Corner” was published occasionally in MAGIC from 1994-2004.

An avid skeptic, Gardner was one of the founders of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, devoted to debunking pseudoscience (the practice of incorrectly claiming a belief or viewpoint as scientific). From 1983-2002, Gardner wrote a monthly column for Skeptical Inquirer , detailing his criticism of fringe science, a science that is speculative, unorthodox and often refuted the by the mainstream scientific community.

Gardner influenced a wide audience on numerous subjects by covering topics that ranged from philosophy to magic; from logic to religion. Yet, being notably shy, Gardner often times declined awards and recognition given to him by academies and fans. That is why in 1993, the first Gathering for Gardner was established. At these events, mathematicians, scientists, magicians, philosophers and more from around the globe discuss and celebrate the topics Gardner’s touched upon in his lifetime’s work. Starting in 1996, Gathering for Gardner became a biannual event. Following his death in 2011, Gardner’s legacy has also been praised through Celebration of Mind events that take place every year on his birthday. Celebration of Mind encourages anyone with a curious mind and spirit to take part in Gardner’s birthday celebration and learn about just how magical Martin Gardner really was.

Undiluted Hocus Pocus jacket

Read more about the fascinating life of Martin Gardner in his autobiography, Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner. Or, discover the secrets of magic, with a foreword written by Gardner, in Magical Mathematics:The Mathematical Ideas That Animate Great Magic Tricks co-authored by Persi Diaconis, Stanford professor of mathematics and former professional magician, and Ron Graham, University of California, San Diego professor of mathematics and former professional juggler.

Magical Mathematics cover

Happy Birthday to Nikola Tesla

j9941Nikola Tesla was born on this day in 1856. Here are 10 facts from Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson:

1. Tesla has two meanings in Serbian: it can refer to a small ax called an adze or to a person with protruding teeth, a common characteristic of people in Nikola Tesla’s family.

2. The night Tesla was born there was a severe thunderstorm. The fearful midwife said, “He’ll be a child of the storm.” His mother responded, “No, of light.”

3. Initially Tesla wanted to be a teacher, but he switched to engineering in his second year at Joanneum Polytechnic School in order to work on building a spark-free motor.

4. One of his favorite hobbies was card-playing and gambling. “To sit down to a game of cards, was for me the quintessence of pleasure.”

5. When Tesla came to New York for the first time after living in Prague, Budapest, and Paris, he was shocked by the crudeness and vulgarity of Americans.

6. In 1886, Tesla was abandoned by his business partners and could not find work—he took a job digging ditches to get by. A patent he filed that year for thermomagnetic motor helped him get back on his feet.

7. In April of 1887, he formed the Tesla Electric Company with his two business partners, Alfred S. Brown and Charles F. Peck. His first lab was located in New York’s financial district.

8. Mark Twain was a good friend of Tesla’s.

9. Tesla suffered from periodic bouts of depression. He treated it by administering electroshock therapy to himself.

10. Tesla told a reporter that he did not want to marry because he thought it would compromise his work. He did not have any known relationships with women.

If you would like to learn more, you can preview the introduction of Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age.

History & Philosophy of Science 2015 Catalog

Our History & Philosophy of Science 2015 catalog is now available.

Be sure to check out The Quotable Feynman, a collection of about 500 quotations from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman (1918-88), compiled by his daughter, Michelle Feynman. Read it cover-to-cover or flip to a specific section, from childhood to religion, from family to politics.

Looking for a comprehensive and authoritative guide to everything Albert Einstein? An Einstein Encyclopedia is your indispensible resource. The book contains entries on a range of topics, including his romantic relationships, hobbies, educational affiliations, and friends. Written by three leading Einstein scholars, researchers and those with a casual curiosity alike will find much to interest them. And don’t forget to scroll to page 3 of the catalog for a wealth of additional Einstein-related titles, including Relativity: 100th Anniversary Edition and Einstein and the Quantum.

Finally, the richly illustrated Mathematics and Art is written by Lynn Gamwell, a cultural historian of both topics. Gamwell shows how mathematics and art have informed and influenced one another from antiquity to the present.

We invite you to look through our catalog and learn about many more new titles in History & Philosophy of Science.

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A Mere Philosopher?

The Physicist and the Philosopher by Jimena CanalesOn the 6th of April, 1922, two men met at the Société française de philosophie to discuss relativity and the nature of time. One was the winner of the previous year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, Albert Einstein, renowned for a series of extraordinary innovations in scientific theory. The other was the French philosopher, Henri Bergson. In The Physicist and the Philosopher, Jimena Canales recounts the events of that meeting, and traces the public controversy that unfolded over the years that followed. Bergson was perceived to have lost the debate and, more generally, philosophy to have lost the authority to speak on matters of science.

Perhaps the greatest evidence of that loss is that it is hard to imagine an equivalent meeting today, the great physicist and the great philosopher debating as equals. While the physical sciences enjoy unprecedented prestige and funding on university campuses, many philosophy departments face cutbacks. Yet less than a century ago, Henri Bergson enjoyed enormous celebrity. His lecture at Columbia University in 1913 resulted in the first traffic jam ever seen on Broadway. His work was translated into multiple languages, influencing not only his fellow philosophers but also artists and writers (Willa Cather named one of her characters after Bergson). His writings on evolutionary theory earned him the condemnation of the Catholic Church. Students were crowded out of his classes at the Collège de France by the curious public.

The young Bergson showed promise in mathematics, but chose instead to study humanities at the École Normale. His disappointed math teacher commented “you could have been a mathematician; you will be a mere philosopher” — a harbinger of later developments? Einstein and his supporters attacked Bergson’s understanding of relativity and asserted that philosophy had no part to play in grasping the nature of time. Bergson countered that, on the contrary, it was he who had been misunderstood, but to no avail: the Einstein/Bergson debate set the tone for a debate on the relationship between philosophy and the sciences that continues to this day. At a recent roundtable discussion hosted by Philosophy Now, biologist Lewis Wolpert dismissed philosophy as “irrelevant” to science. In this, do we hear an echo of Einstein’s claim that time can be understood either psychologically or physically, but not philosophically?

Donald E. Canfield and Gillen D’Arcy Wood to be honored at annual conference of the American Meteorological Society

On January 7th and 8th in Phoenix, Arizona, authors Donald E. Canfield and Gillen D’Arcy were recognized by the Atmospheric Science Librarians International (ASLI) for their books Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History and Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World, respectively.

Canfield’s account of the history and importance of oxygen won him the 2014 ASLI Choice Award and will be recognized as “a well-documented, accessible, and interesting history of this vital substance.” Wood received an honorable mention for this year’s Choice Award in History. Tambora, will be acknowledged as “a book that makes this extreme event newly accessible through connecting literature, social history, and science.” More general information on the awards can be found, here.

Congratulations to Donald E. Canfield and Gillen D’Arcy Wood!


A Four Billion Year History
Donald E. Canfield



The Eruption That Changed the World
Gillen D’Arcy Wood

The Visioneers wins Watson Davis and Helen Miles Davis HSS Prize

mccrayPatrick McCray, author of The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future, is the winner of the History of Science Society’s (HSS) Watson Davis and Helen Miles Davis Prize. The prize, which” honors books in the history of science directed to a wide public (including undergraduate instruction),” also comes with $1000 and a certificate. For more information on the history of the award, check out McCray’s own blog “Leaping Robot Blog,” or the History of Science Society’s website.

Congratulations Patrick McCray!

Einstein and the Quantum wins The Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science

EinsteinCongratulations are in order for author A. Douglas Stone as the Phi Beta Kappa Society recently announced Einstein and the Quantum: The Quest of the Valiant Swabian was selected for the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science.

It is a tremendous honor to be recognized this way by Phi Beta Kappa which is “the nation’s oldest and most recognized academic honor society…Its mission is to champion education in the liberal arts and sciences, to recognize academic excellence, and to foster freedom of thought and expression.”

One of three awards (the other two being The Christian Gauss Award and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award), the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science recognizes “outstanding contributions by scientists to the literature of science.” Notable winners of the award include scientists James Gleick, Brian Greene, Stephen Jay Gould, and Nate Silver.

Of Einstein and the Quantum, one Selection Panel member said, “I wish I’d had this book to read when I was an undergraduate. Statistical mechanics and thermodynamics are taught as such dry topics… [this book] brings the subject to life.” Again, we are thrilled to congratulate A. Douglas Stone on this amazing achievement.

A look within — MRI technology in action

It’s 2014, and although we don’t have flying cars or teleportation, we do have some truly amazing technologies. The video of a live birth posted below has been making the social media rounds in recent weeks, and it is a wonderful glimpse of the imaging possible through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology.

To fully understand the history and future challenges of imaging technology, we recommend Denis Le Bihan’s book Looking Inside the Brain: The Power of Neuroimaging. Le Bihan is one of the leading scientists and developers of MRI technology, so who better to guide readers through the history of imaging technology from the x-ray and CT scan to the PET scan and MRI. He also explains how neuroimaging uncovers afflictions like stroke or cancer and the workings of higher-order brain activities, such as language skills and also takes readers on a behind-the-scenes journey through NeuroSpin, his state-of-the-art neuroimaging laboratory.



Looking Inside the Brain
The Power of Neuroimaging
Denis Le Bihan
Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan