The usefulness of useless knowledge

Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, US
Robbert Dijkgraaf directs the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, US. PHOTO: Institute for Advanced Study


Theoretical physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf discusses the importance of curiosity-based research

In 1878, the Dutch chemist Jacobus Henricus van ’t Hoff gave a lecture titled ‘Imagination in Science’. In it, van ’t Hoff describes his research into the biographies of more than 200 famous scientists, looking for signs of artistic inclinations among them, which he considered a sign of a healthy imagination. van ’t Hoff looked also for evidence of a diseased imagination, such as an interest in superstition or spiritualism, or a tendency towards insanity. In this category he placed some of science’s biggest names, including Ampère, Davy, Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton.

It’s an example that theoretical physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf uses in his Science and Society Forum seminar, on the ‘Usefulness of Useless Knowledge’. When I speak to him after the seminar, Dijkgraaf emphasises again the importance of imagination and curiosity in science – along with the deadening effect that education can sometimes have, in encouraging people to think in established ways. “Our whole education is a process of confrontation between our imagination and the reality of established facts,” he says. “I think the greatest scientists have such an intense curiosity that they’re not discouraged by the current practice of the field and they push the boundaries of knowledge.”

Art and science

This effect of education is something Dijkgraaf himself is familiar with. While completing his undergraduate studies in physics, he became disillusioned with the way the subject was taught and began taking more and more time to pursue another of his interests: painting. “At some point my wife said, ‘Robbert, I see you painting all day and I don’t see you doing any calculations. Perhaps you’re doing the wrong thing,’” he explains. Realising she was right, he ended up spending two years studying art at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam.

It was only after taking some time away from physics that his interest in the subject revived. “I still remember the day I walked into a bookstore and felt, ‘Wow, I can read a physics book again!’” says Dijkgraaf. Despite returning to physics, he’s clear how much the experience of studying art has helped him. “This detour through art school was actually a short cut in my development as a researcher,” he says. One thing he discovered was the importance of practising his craft, for example by making sketches. “The important thing is not so much whether the sketches are good or bad, it’s that you did the sketches,” he explains. That same need to experience the process and do things for yourself applies also in physics. “I discovered that you have to learn a topic yourself, instead of going through a book and following an argument. It’s like I can give you instructions for how to walk somewhere, but if you walk the route yourself then you know it and you never forget.”

If it’s important for your field and the way you think, it will impact the world

Dijkgraaf – who currently directs the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, US – has recently written a companion essay for a reissue of ‘The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge’: a 1939 essay by another director of the Institute for Advanced Study, Abraham Flexner. In his essay, Flexner sets out the case for curiosity-based research. Not only does it advance human knowledge – an important goal in itself – it also generates transformative ideas and technologies, leads to the development of new tools and techniques, brings together the best minds, drives innovation, and acts as a public good. In his seminar, Dijkgraaf cites research indicating that the GDP of a country increases with increases in research spending. “The best grant in the world has been the one that the National Science Foundation gave to Stanford University, to two young graduate students who were working on this new search algorithm in the digital library,” he says. “They were the founders of Google, and this less than $5 million grant led to a company that’s now close to a trillion in valuation.”

Useless useful knowledge

An important example Dijkgraaf gives of the usefulness of useless knowledge is the discovery of superconductivity, made by the Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes in 1911. Kamerlingh Onnes was someone who realised the importance of laying the groundwork for future discoveries, rather than seeking immediate returns. “When he became a professor in Leiden in the nineteenth century, he didn’t actually build a lab, he built a lab assistants’ school,” explains Dijkgraaf. “He started a school for young boys at that time – ten-year-olds, twelve-year-olds – to be trained in glassblowing and all kinds of techniques, so that ten years later he would have the best lab assistants in the world.”

A little over a century after Kamerlingh Onnes’s discovery, superconductivity is used in technologies as diverse as maglev trains and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners. MRI has a variety of clinical applications, and is often used by neuroscientists to measure brain activity. “I could argue that the whole field of modern neuroscience wouldn’t have happened without superconductivity,” says Dijkgraaf. Superconducting magnets are also important components in particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider, where the Higgs boson was discovered. It’s a scenario Dijkgraaf describes as ‘the uselessness of the usefulness of useless knowledge’ – a technological application of a fundamental discovery being used to make new fundamental discoveries.

In his own field of theoretical physics – where discoveries are not always easy for the public to grasp – Dijkgraaf is eloquent about what an important discovery means. “Often it’s that you feel this is a deep idea, in some sense it explains a lot with a little, it travels far, it reaches many other ideas. The passion you have for this deep concept is in some sense about its usefulness,” he explains. “I think any fundamental breakthrough in science is important. Almost by definition, if it’s important for your field and the way you think, it will impact the world.”

Einstein’s piano

As our interview comes to an end, I return to the subject of van ’t Hoff and his studies of scientists who also had a deep interest in the arts. I’m curious to know whether Dijkgraaf – amid all his other commitments – still finds time for painting. “Yes, I do!” he says, laughing. “I love art, I also love music – I play a lot of music – and I like to write. I feel the mental distance between doing research and painting or playing music is very small.”

My final question – “What instrument do you play?” – might well be considered a useless one. What, of any significance, do I hope to learn from it? But then Dijkgraaf tells me that he plays flute and piano, and that one of the pleasures of his job as director of the Institute for Advanced Study is that he has Einstein’s grand piano in his living room – the Bechstein piano that was shipped over from Einstein’s Berlin apartment when he came to Princeton in 1933.

The fact that Robbert Dijkgraaf gets to play music on Einstein’s grand piano might not be especially useful, but somehow it’s still the kind of thing you feel better for knowing.