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THE USEFULNESS OF USELESS KNOWLEDGE
In his classic essay “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the man who helped bring Albert Einstein to the United States, 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. In short, no quantum mechanics and no computer chips.
This brief book includes Flexner’s timeless 1939 essay alongside a new companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the Institute’s current director, in which he shows that Flexner’s defense of the value of “the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge” just might be even more relevant today than it was in the early twentieth century. Dijkgraaf describes how basic research has led to major transformations in the past century and explains why it is an essential precondition of innovation and the first step in social and cultural change.
EINSTEIN HARNESSED HIS IMAGINATION WITH USELESS KNOWLEDGE
Some people might believe that music is a useless hobby, but Albert Einstein perceived it as vital to how he approached life. He used this perception to intuitively develop a process that leveraged his ability to play an instrument into a cognitive tool for his work. Einstein did this by playing the violin or piano if he had a roadblock on a physics problem. After a vigorous session with his musical instrument, he would go back and solve the physics problem with mental clarity. Einstein used this process to stimulate his creativity. Einstein’s son Hans remembered that his father believed that the process of playing an instrument was the most direct path to access his imagination. That’s why he said: “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”
STEVE JOBS REALIZED THE IMPORTANCE OF USELESS KNOWLEDGE
Steve Jobs embraced his love for Useless Knowledge, and he was proud that his Macintosh team at Apple was comprised of the top computer scientists in the world, but they also had individual passions as musicians, poets, artists, historians, and even zoologists. At an early age, Jobs had a fascination with calligraphy, and he was able to pull from his Useless Knowledge of what some consider an outdated form of writing to perfect the fonts on the Macintosh. Jobs encouraged his team member to pull from Useless Knowledge and the best thing humans have done and bring them into the development of modern technology.
In one of his last public appearances, Steve Jobs said:
“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”
Steve Jobs was a great believer in Useless Knowledge as a distraction for the brain.
USELESS KNOWLEDGE DRIVES CREATIVITY
Useless Knowledge can be as vital to you as it was to Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. The ability to free your mind and follow your curiosity will allow you to look at life in a completely different way. You will open up new levels of the creative process when you allow a broader view by allowing Useless Knowledge to break through and influence your creation. Knowledge of the humanities literally humanizes technology because, as Jobs put it: “technology alone is not enough.”
British philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote about the importance of useless knowledge in an ode to the modest peach and apricot:
I have enjoyed peaches and apricots more since I have known that they were first cultivated in China in the early days of Han Dynasty; that Chinese hostages held by the great King Kaniska introduced them to India, whence they spread to Persia, reaching the Roman Empire in the first century of our era … All this makes the fruit taste much sweeter.
This quote definitely makes you realize the importance of Useless knowledge and how it can give you a new perspective on everything in life.
IN PURSUIT OF USELESS KNOWLEDGE
This is the first paragraph of the article “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” by Abraham Flexner, published in Harpers issue 179, from June/November 1939, which asks the same question we should all be asking:
“Is it not a curious fact that in a world steeped in irrational hatreds which threaten civilization itself, 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 though fanatics were not simultaneously engaged in spreading pain, ugliness, and suffering? The world has always been a sorry and confused sort of place—yet poets and artists, and scientists have ignored the factors that would, if attended to, paralyze them. 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. In this paper, I shall concern myself with the question of the extent to which the pursuit of these useless satisfactions proves unexpectedly the source from which undreamed-of utility is derived.”
USELESS KNOWLEDGE IS CHANGING THE WORLD
In today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world, it’s easy to get caught up in the pursuit of knowledge that has immediate and tangible benefits. We want to know things that we can use right away to improve our lives or our businesses. However, there is value in acquiring knowledge for its own sake—what some might call “useless” knowledge. Here are 3 examples of why useless knowledge can actually be quite useful.
Abraham Flexner’s The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge highlights how the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake has shown itself to be a powerful force in the world. So go ahead and learn something new just for the sake of learning it—you might be surprised by how useful it turns out to be!
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