Field of Science

Abraham Flexner, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the usefulness of useless knowledge

The most succinct encapsulation of the value of curiosity to practical pursuits came from Michael Faraday; when asked by William Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer, about the utility of electricity, Faraday is purported to have replied, "One day, sir, you may tax it". Whether apocryphal or not, the remark accurately captures the far-reaching, often universal material benefits of the most fundamental of scientific investigations. Faraday's basic research on the relationship between electricity and magnetism ushered in the electrical age, as much as it shed light on one of Natures deepest secrets.

Part of Faraday's sentiment saw its flowering potential in the establishment of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton. The IAS was set up in 1933 by Abraham Flexner, a far-thinking educator and reformer, with the explicit purpose of providing a heaven for the worlds purest thinkers that was free of teaching, administrative duties and the myriad interferences of the modern university. Funds came from the wealthy Bamberger family who did the world a favor by switching their monetary support from a medical school to the institute (some people might think they did us an even bigger favor by founding the clothing store chain Macy's). 

Flexners paean to unadulterated pure thought was duly enshrined in the institutes founding by an invitation to Albert Einstein to serve as its first permanent member in 1933; other intellectual giants including John von Neumann, Herman Weyl and Kurt Godel followed suit, finding a safe refuge from a continent which seemed to have gone half-mad. Over the next eight decades the institute produced scores of leading thinkers and writers, many of whom have inaugurated new fields of science and the humanities and been associated with prestigious prizes like the Nobel Prize, the Fields Medal and the Pulitzer Prize. Later permanent members have included diplomat George Kennan, physicist Freeman Dyson and art historian Erwin Panofsky. 

Flexner's pioneering thinking found its way into a 1939 issue of Harpers Magazine in the form of an article with the memorable title The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge. The document still provides one of the clearest and most eloquent arguments for supporting thinking without palpable ends that I have come across. The very beginning makes a telling case for science as a candle in the dark, a fact that must have shone like a gem on a mountaintop in the dark year of 1939:
"Is it not a curious fact that in a world steeped in irrational hatreds which threaten civilization, men and women old and young detach themselves wholly or partly from the angry current of daily life to devote themselves to the cultivation of beauty, to the extension of knowledge, to the cure of disease, to the amelioration of suffering, just as fanatics were not simultaneously engaged in spreading pain, ugliness and suffering?"
Flexner then goes on to give the example of half a dozen scientists including Maxwell, Faraday, Gauss, Ehrlich and Einstein whose passionate tinkering with science and mathematics led to pioneering applications in industry, medicine and transportation. Each of these scientists was pursuing research for its own sake, free of concerns regarding future application. Paul Ehrlich's case is especially instructive. Ehrlich who is the father of both modern antibiotic research and drug discovery was asked by his supervisor, Wilhelm von Waldeyer, why he spent so much time tinkering aimlessly with bacterial broths and petri dishes; Ehrlich simply replied, "Ich probiere", which can be loosely translated to "I am just fooling around". Waldeyer wisely left him to fool around, and Ehrlich ended up suggesting the function of protein receptors for drugs and discovering Salvarsan, the first remedy for the scourge of syphilis.

The theme repeats throughout the history of science; Alexander Fleming mulling over unexplained bacterial genocide, Claude Shannon obsessed with the mathematization of information transfer, Edward Purcell and Isidor Rabi investigating the behavior of atoms in magnetic fields. Each of these studies led to momentous practical inventions; specifically leading to antibiotics, information technology and MRI in the above cases.

Thus it should not be hard to make a case for why untrammeled intellectual wandering should be encouraged. It's of course not true that pure thinking always leads to the next iPad or brain scanner in every single instance. But as Flexner eloquently put it, even the occasional benefits far outweigh the perceived waste:
"I am not for a moment suggesting that everything that goes on in laboratories will ultimately turn to some unexpected practical use or that an ultimate practical use is its actual justification. Much more am I pleading for the abolition of the word use, and for the freeing of the human spirit. To be sure, we shall free some harmless cranks. 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 in our own day have, on the one hand, taken Hale and Rutherford and Einstein and their peers millions upon millions of miles into the uttermost realms of space, and on the other, loosed the boundless energy imprisoned in the atom."
It is clear from Flexner's words that the sheer motive power of pure thinking by an Einstein or a Bohr makes the accompanying modest wastage of funds or an entry by the occasional crank a mere trifle. However to Flexner's credit, he also defuses the myth of the Great Man of Science, noting that sometimes practical discoveries very much rest on the shoulders of aimless meandering; a fact that makes the web of both pure and applied discovery a highly interconnected and interdependent one:
"Thus it become obvious that one must be wary in attributing scientific discovery wholly to any one person. Almost every discovery has a long and precarious history. Someone finds a bit here, another a bit there. A third step succeeds later and thus onward till a genius pieces the bits together and makes the decisive contribution. 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."
A deeper question though is why this relationship between idea and use exists, why even the purest of thought often leads to the most practical of inventions. In 2012 I attended the Lindau meeting of Nobel Laureates in Germany where the uncertain and yet immensely historically successful relationship between ideas and use was amply driven home. 

Physicist David Gross put his finger on the essential reason. He pointed out that "Nature is a reluctant mistress who shares her secrets reluctantly". The case for basic research thus boils down to a practical consideration: the recognition that a stubborn sea of scientific possibilities will yield its secrets only to the one who casts her net the widest, takes the biggest risks, makes the most unlikely and indirect connections, pursues a path of discovery for the sheer pleasure of it. Even from a strictly practical viewpoint, you encourage pure research because you want to maximize the odds of a hit in the face of uncertainty about the landscape of facts. It's simply a matter of statistical optimization.

At the Lindau meeting we could hear first hand accounts by scientists regarding how the uselessness of their investigations turned into useful, sometimes wholly unexpected knowledge. There was Steven Chu talking about how his work in using lasers to cool atoms is now being used by spacecraft studying global warming by tracking the motion of glaciers down to millimeter accuracy. Interestingly Chu also defused the popular notion that research in the exalted corridors of Bell Labs was entirely pie in the sky; as he noted, both the transistor and information theory arose from company concerns regarding communication through noisy channels and finding urgent replacements for vacuum tubes. Pure and applied research certainly don't need to be antagonists.

Others recounted their own stories. There was Alan Heeger who on a whim mixed a conducting polymer with fullerenes, thus anticipating ultrafast electron transfer. And Hartmut Michel, the Frankfurt chemist who is known for not being one to mince words, told the audience about how archeological applications of DNA technology are transforming our knowledge about the deepest mysteries of human origins. Michel also pointed out the important fact that one third or more Nobel Prizes have been awarded for methods development, a pattern which indicates that technical engineering for its own ends is as much a part of science as idea generation. There is great art both in the fashioning of the most abstract equations and the machining of the simplest tools of science.

The life and times of the successful scientists on stage made the immense spinoffs and unanticipated benefits of seemingly aimless research clear. And they did not even touch on the fact amply documented by Flexner in his essay that these aimless investigations have opened up windows into the workings of life and the universe that would have been inconceivable even a hundred years ago. Man is something more than the fruits of his labors, and that something is well worth preserving, even at the cost of billions of dollars and countless false alleys. 

The useful pondering of useless knowledge makes no claim to infallible wisdom or a steady stream of inventions. But what it promises is something far more precious; freedom from fear and the opportunity to see the light wherever it exists. Ich probiere.

This is an updated version of a past post.

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