The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

–  Written by Shaurya Bhave, Undergraduate Physics

As a result of economic forces and technological progress, our world has become obsessed with efficiency, practicality and usefulness. I feel there is little room left for abstract thinking and useless random knowledge, and the kind of curiosity that allows one to gather the latter: the curiosity that gathers knowledge for its own sake with no other concern for whether it is useful. Sure, in time, the discovered knowledge may transform into something practical and beneficial to society. But we have stopped being blindly curious.

When we hear stories like “Scientists have discovered chimps use leaf sponges and get drunk from fermented tree sap” we think, “Great, when will I ever need that information? Why don’t you research something useful?” It is not an irrational remark, but perhaps our perception of usefulness is distorted or is just shortsighted. Most influential discoveries did not start with a need to solve a problem; they started with a fundamental question.

It is devious trap to fall into, thinking that the only knowledge worth gathering is one that is useful. Albert Jay Nock (2012) gives an illustrative example: “Let us suppose that I say to you, ‘Plato says so-and-so.’ You reply, ‘I think not. I cannot speak positively, for I have long forgotten every word of Plato that I ever read. But all of Plato that I have read and forgotten, taken together with all I have read of a great many other authors and likewise forgotten, has left me with a clear residual impression that Plato never said anything like that.’ Then you look it up and find that you are right.” You forgot almost everything, but it left the impression in your mind.

Your subconscious mind will make connections and go through new permutations that come up with new ideas within the leftover impression of the useless knowledge. Perhaps I am being too disingenuous. It is like the gifted violin player, who has taken it upon them to learn all the greatest symphonies in the world, which is fine. No one can ever learn too much. But they do not take the effort of forgetting these useless symphonies. So when they wish to create a work of their own, at the entry of the first few notes their conscious mind immediately jumps to the myriad of the symphonies they have already learned. They cannot create anything original.
To build a house or slaughter a hog requires useful knowledge which you really should not forget. To develop a paradigm shifting theory or create a technology empire like Steve Jobs requires useless knowledge. But doing so takes time since one must go through the effort of learning, un-learning, and then relearning.

Amongst other things, Nikola Tesla said, which alluded to this argument, commenting in The Century Magazine, “The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of the planter — for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way. He lives and labors and hopes.” (Tesla, n.d.)
The counterpart to all ‘useful’ knowledge (knowledge that gains value the more it is remembered) is this ‘useless’ knowledge. This gains value the more it is forgotten (Nock, 2012). In a vast and reformative effort to put our knowledge to practical use, we have now tried to move towards only acquiring knowledge which we see has immediate applications and immediate economic gain. But is this short-term thinking really how we should gather knowledge as a society?

This is not a new concern and I am not the only one who thinks this. Abraham Flexner, an American educator, wrote in Harper’s issue 179 on the ‘usefulness of useless knowledge’ and explored the “dangerous tendency to forgo pure curiosity in favor of pragmatism, be that in science, in education or just human thought at large.” Flexner, in this article, said, “{…} I sometimes wonder whether our conception of what is useful may not have become too narrow to be adequate to the roaming and capricious possibilities of the human spirit”. (Flexner, 1939:544)

In the article, he recounted a conversation he had with Mr. George Eastman, the founder of Kodak. They were discussing who the most influential worker in science was. Mr. Eastman replied ‘Marconi’ (Flexner, 1939:544), the inventor of radio. And fair enough. Radio revolutionized how we communicate, significantly improved the speed at which we do so, and connected the globe unlike anything that preceded it. Much to Mr. Eastman’s astonishment, Flexner countered by saying that the likes of Marconi were inevitable, his contribution was negligible; Professors James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz already set the tracks to the invention of commercial radio long ago. Maxwell carried out the fundamental calculation, simply to inquire into the nature of the force that governed electricity and magnetism. The work was pretty arcane for non-scientists and would have been considered useless by the general public. After producing the, up until then, theorized invisible radio waves, Hertz had been noted to remark, “It’s of no use whatsoever, this is just an experiment that proves Maestro Maxwell was right – we just have these mysterious electromagnetic waves that we cannot see with the naked eye.”(Heinrich Rudolph Hertz, 2004) Sure, Hertz and Maxwell could invent nothing but it was their useless theoretical work that created ecosystems for inventions to flourish. Sir Oliver Heaviside, in 1891, summarised this eloquently, “Three years ago, electromagnetic waves were nowhere. Shortly afterward, they were everywhere.”(Heinrich Rudolph Hertz, 2004)

Carl Friedrich Gauss invented the field of Non-Euclidean geometry, another devilishly arcane topic and, on its face, also has no practical or immediate application, and is largely useless to a non-mathematician. But the general theory of relativity, with its numerous practical bearings, would not have been possible without the useless mathematical concept worked out by Gauss.

Alexander Fleming did not – in his own words – “plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic,” (Alexander Fleming, 2015) But that is exactly what he did. He simply wanted to know more about the properties of bacteria called staphylococci. He discovered a fungus that had accidently contaminated his cultures and killed them by producing penicillin. He would not have discovered such a thing if he had not tried to satisfy his curiosity.

Abraham Flexner (1939:548) did not suggest that all the work that goes on in labs will ultimately turn into some unexpected and incredible practical use. He merely put forward the idea that educational institutions should encourage gathering knowledge for the sake of gathering knowledge. Assessing the uses and applications should really be an afterthought, he believed, since doing so restricted us from venturing down paths that were previously unknown to us. I am inclined to agree. No one would have investigated the nature of the atom if someone had said, ‘Who will that help?’ “What Rutherford, Niels Bohr and Millikan did out of sheer curiosity in the effort to understand the construction of the atom has released forces that transformed human life.”(Flexner, 1939:548) Like musicians, poets, and artist do as they please, it should be the same for scholars.

For a long time, and even now, aspiring to become an artist or poet is considered to be a risky option and many children in developing countries, that have restricted opportunities, are discouraged from pursuing a career with something within the arts and humanities. It’s a valid concern as, unfortunately, there can never be a painting or poem based economy so an artistic career will not necessarily give out the maximum monetary gain. But we have come to understand that making money and serving a utilitarian function is, perhaps, not why humans engage in art. Oscar Wilde championed the aesthetic ideology ‘art for art’s sake’ which affirmed that art is valuable as art, and does not need moral justification. I firmly believe that whilst the creation and viewing of art is totally useless, the creative inspiration that takes place in the mind of the beholder has the potential to achieve great utility. I think most people are familiar with that idea. So if we accept the uselessness of art in trade for the indirect influence it has on human thought, why cannot we do the same for knowledge, or broadly, academia? What is, then, so wrong with gathering knowledge for the sake of knowledge, even if we waste time and some ‘precious dollars’ in doing so? (Flexner, 1939:548)

Sure, thinking about applications and use is of economic importance so that we can see that our investment into research brings about some monetary gain. But concerning ourselves with use first is highly restrictive. Sir Alec Jeffreys, who pioneered DNA fingerprinting and profiling, said in an interview that “he is critical of trying to set too many priorities and strategies in research because it tends to direct research to ‘known unknowns’ — establishing and solving the obvious problems. While he acknowledges that this is important, so is solving problems you didn’t even know existed. And these are the kinds of problems far less likely to be solved by industry.” (The Value of Blue-Skies Research, 2009)

Discovering problems and areas one did not know before can only really be achieved with the useless inquisition that humans are innately capable of.

Whilst I have mainly focused on scientific research, there is no reason why this cannot be applied to other fields. The undeniable value of useless knowledge seeps through to all manner of areas. Fundamental thinking and useless enquiries have much in common with art (Griffiths, 1992). They serve no immediate practical purpose but it sparks something within us. We do not educate ourselves and learn new things because we foresee the benefits to society. No one is that altruistic. We do it because there is something inherent within us that seeks answers. That is why education exists. That is what fuels human thought. Nock also said that culture could be defined as a large culmination of useless knowledge: the history, religion, art, cuisine etc. (Nock, 2012)

So, perhaps that is why we strive to acquire such useless things and why, in the end, they allow us to reap the greatest rewards.

 

 

References

Anonymous (2015), “Alexander Fleming” [Online] http://www.biography.com/people/alexander-fleming-9296894 [22 June 2015]

Anonymous (2004), “Heinrich Rudolph Hertz” [Online] http://web.archive.org/web/20090925102542/http://chem.ch.huji.ac.il/history/hertz.htm [23 June 2015]

Anonymous (2009), “The Value of Blue-Skies Research” [Online] http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/for-journalists/copy_of_25th-anniversary-of-dna-fingerprinting/interview-with-professor-sir-alec-jeffreys-1/the-value-of-blue-skies-research [23 June 2015]

Flexner, Abraham (1939), “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” [Online] https://library.ias.edu/files/UsefulnessHarpers.pdf [23 June 2015]

Griffiths, Paul (1992), “Don’t Underestimate The Usefulness Of ‘Useless’ Knowledge” [Online] http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/12443/title/Don-t-Underestimate-The-Usefulness-Of–Useless–Knowledge/ [20 June 2015]

Nock, Albert Jay (2012) “The value of Useless Knowledge” [Online] http://www.theamericanconservative.com/repository/the-value-of-useless-knowledge/ [23 June 2015]

Tesla, Nikola (n.d.) “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy” [Online] https://www.pbs.org/tesla/res/res_art09.html  [1 July 2015]

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