Science & Tech

How a ‘Usefulness’ Mindset Is Killing Scientific Curiosity

Albert Einstein in Washington, D.C., c. 1921 (Library of Congress)
Focusing only on the practical applications of scientific research bodes ill for the future.

“Science, like the Mississippi, begins in a tiny rivulet in the distant forest.”

— Abraham Flexner

In 1933, when America’s most famous immigrant settled in Princeton, N.J., Franklin Roosevelt tried to invite Albert Einstein to the White House. Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study that had brought Einstein to Princeton, intercepted FDR’s letter before the intended recipient saw it. Flexner declined the invitation and rebuked Roosevelt: “Professor Einstein has come to Princeton for the purpose of carrying on his scientific work in seclusion, and it is absolutely impossible to make any exception which would inevitably bring him into public notice.” Robbert Dijkgraaf, the institute’s current director, says that subsequently “Einstein made sure he personally answered all of his mail.”

Dijkgraaf recounts this episode in a slender volume that, read in the right government places, might inoculate the nation against philistine utilitarianism. In the volume, which reprints Flexner’s 1939 essay in Harper’s Magazine, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” Dijkgraaf notes that the April 1939 opening of the World’s Fair in New York — Einstein was honorary chair of the fair’s science advisory committee — featured such marvels as an automatic dishwasher, an air conditioner, and a fax machine. There was no intimation of electronic computers or nuclear energy. (Four months later, Einstein urgently wrote to Roosevelt about the element uranium being turned into a new and important source of energy, including bombs, which might explain why Germany had stopped the sale of uranium from Czechoslovakian mines.)

Flexner’s theme, says Dijkgraaf, was the practicality of “unobstructed curiosity” that sails “against the current of practical considerations.” The 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA, which led to the 1970s arrival of recombinant DNA technology and to today’s biotech industry and pharmacology, was the result of scientific curiosity “without any thoughts of immediate applications.”

Flexner, who died in 1959 at age 92, recalled asking a great philanthropist who he considered the world’s “most useful worker in science.” When the philanthropist said “Marconi,” Flexner responded:

Radio has enriched human life, but Guglielmo Marconi’s contribution to creating it was “practically negligible.” Marconi was “inevitable” and added only “the last technical detail” after the basic science (concerning magnetism and electromagnetic waves) by Heinrich Hertz, James Clerk Maxwell, and others. They had no concern whatever about “the utility of their work” that “was seized upon by a clever technician. . . . Hertz and Maxwell were geniuses without thought of use. Marconi was a clever inventor with no thought but use.”

It has been said that the great moments in science occur not when a scientist exclaims “Eureka!” but when he or she murmurs “That’s strange.” Flexner thought the most fertile discoveries come from scientists “driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.” He wanted to banish the word “use” in order to encourage institutions of learning to be devoted more to “the cultivation of curiosity” and less to “considerations of immediacy of application.” It is axiomatic that knowledge is the only resource that increases when used, and it is a paradox of prosperity that nations only reap practical innovations from science by regarding them as afterthoughts coming long after basic science.

The practical lesson from Flexner’s hymn to impracticality is this: Indifference to immediate usefulness is a luxury central to the mission of some luxuries of our civilization — the great research universities, free from the tyranny of commercial pressures for short-term results. Only government can have the long-time horizon required for the basic research that produces — in time — innovations that propel economic growth.

As 10,000 baby boomers retire each day into the embrace of the entitlement state, rapid economic growth becomes more imperative and, because of the increasing weight of the state, more difficult to maintain. Entitlement spending and the cost of servicing the surging national debt increasingly crowd out rival claims on scarce public resources, including those for basic science. Because it is politically expedient to sacrifice the future — which does not vote — to the consumption of government services by those who do, America is eating its seed corn.

The future’s vital — and only — constituency is the conscience of the present. Testifying to Congress in 1969 concerning the possible Cold War utility of a particular particle accelerator, the physicist Robert Wilson said, “This new knowledge has all to do with honor and country, but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to help make it worth defending.”

(c) 2018 Washington Post Writers Group

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