I am often asked why I write and publish The Well-read Naturalist. Not by people meaning to be insulting, mind you; rather because – usually – they have recently discovered that I do so for no financial or other intentional benefit to myself. When I tell them that after nearly ten years I continue the work of keeping an interested group of readers, the vast majority of whom I’ve never met or from whom received any communication whatsoever, apprised of new and interesting books classifiable as natural history solely for the reason that I think it is important to do so, the looks I receive generally fall somewhere between confused and pitying – as in the way one might look at a gentle madman wholly submerged in an all-encompassing delusion. After all, what sane person does such a thing, week in, week out, for years on end, without a clearly defined goal of personal or professional gain?
Such looks, I expect, were also directed at Abraham Flexner when he first proposed his ideas that would eventually take form as the Institute for Advanced Study. Not that I am, by any means, comparing myself and my petty projects to him and his world-changing ones; however the confusion in the minds of those learning of his intention to establish a place where scholars could come to pursue whatever intellectual inquiries or scientific investigations they desired, completely unencumbered by any teaching, reporting, or other responsibilities must have been profound. After all, what good could possibly come from such an institution?
As it has come to be over the decades of the Institute’s history, remarkable good has come from it indeed. As it’s official history so concisely states, “thirty-three Nobel Laureates and forty-one out of fifty-six Fields Medalists, as well as many winners of the Wolf Prize and MacArthur Fellowship, have been affiliated with the Institute.” Among these have been Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, Freeman J. Dyson, George F. Kennan, J. Robert Oppenheimer (who later also served as the Institute’s director), and Erwin Panofsky.
1n 1939, at the end of his tenure as the Institute’s founding director, Harper’s magazine published Flexner’s now famous essay “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” in which he gave one of the most eloquent defenses of the need for open, undirected inquiry and a freeing of the human spirit from what had become the straight-jacket of the unending pursuit of “use.” Beginning with a recounting of the curiosity-driven experimentation by Professor Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz upon which such a later inventor as Guglielmo Marconi would draw to bring to the world the wireless radio, and interweaving the history of the Institute itself with tales of other noteworthy pursuits of “useless” knowledge, Flexner’s essay has long been read and cited as a defense of the importance of inspired, curiosity-driven scholarship to the enlargement of human knowledge and invention.
Reading Flexner’s inspiring words, his impassioned advocacy for the support of and participation in such unbounded inquiry as the Institute has come to embody, one cannot help but begin to muse on how far away so many modern societies have moved from such activities. Driven by goals, metrics, and the unrelenting importance of securing some manner of gain from our activities, our minds and spirits are hammered ever tighter into tidy little square boxes, regardless of however-so-round they may in some of us be. Even our recreation and socialization have become regimented. (Doubt this? How many “friends” do you have on Facebook? How many “followers” on Twitter or Instagram? Do you feel a sense of accomplishment when you “gain” some or unhappiness when you “lose” any?) Indeed, far from speaking to us just about scholarship, Flexner’s essay brings to mind questions about each and every one of our own lives as they are lived in the modern world – in a sense validating his very thesis.
Paired with Flexner’s original essay in this present edition is another, written by the Institute’s present director, Professor Robbert Dijkgraaf, titled “The World of Tomorrow.” Appearing first in the book, “The World of Tomorrow” serves as an excellent introduction to Flexner’s ideas and work, both within and outside of the Institute, as well as to the Institute itself. It also serves to “connect the dots” from Flexner’s original essay and ideas to some of their later results, as well as to remind all who will listen of just how many of the world’s great institutions of higher learning have diverged from such basic inquiry as Flexner championed and, in a time of ever-tightening sources of research funding and ever-increasing demands for “results,” have sacrificed (if I may) what dreams may come for what profits may be generated. (I can’t help but here muse upon the famous words of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in The Gospel of St. Mark, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”).
The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge is a book that should be in the library of all those who undertake any manner of inquiry, be it scientific or humanistic, amateur or professional. Furthermore, it should not be read only once but turned to again and again for inspiration, for motivation, and indeed, even for comfort. For in a world so relentlessly focused on tangible achievement and commercialization, the reminder that there were, and continue to be, those in who knew and still understand the importance of unbridled curiosity to the health of the human mind and spirit is of inestimable importance.
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Pages: 104 pp.
Published: February 2017
In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.