Of What Good Is Basic Scientific Research?

Have you ever read about scientific research and thought, “Well, that’s a waste of time”?

The truth is we never know where our ideas will lead.  Benjamin Franklin was watching an early flight of a hot-air balloon when another spectator remarked, “But of what good is it?”  Franklin replied, “Of what good is a newborn baby?”

There has always been someone questioning research, so I was intrigued when I heard about The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, an essay written by Abraham Flexner in 1939.  Flexner was a founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study and is famous for helping to bring Albert Einstein to this country.  Flexner argued that fundamental scientific research was vital, even when science could solve problems of global significance. “Unless it is made a better world, a fairer world, millions will continue to go to their graves silent, saddened, and embittered.” But, he continued, “we cherish the hope that the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge will prove to have consequences in the future as in the past.”

There is a lot of truth in this.  For example, nothing is more basic than Einstein’s work on relativity.  Yet it led to the atomic clock technology that drives GPS.

So let scientists explore what they may, because no one knows what will result.

There is a discussion on NPR’s “Science Friday” at  https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/the-many-uses-of-useless-research/.  The essay is still in print (the photo came from Amazon.com) and can be found online here —  “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.”


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