I first came across a post in my Facebook news feed – The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge by Maria Popova. Within a day, from an entirely different source, in an entirely different channel (email), I came across this video. Too much of a coincidence! I tweeted both but felt that I need to capture the context in a single post.
In an age obsessed with practicality, productivity, and efficiency, I frequently worry that we are leaving little room for abstract knowledge and for the kind of curiosity that invites just enough serendipity to allow for the discovery of ideas we didn’t know we were interested in until we are, ideas that we may later transform into new combinations with applications both practical and metaphysical.
That was compelling enough for me to take a closer look at the original paper(pdf). A few snippets.
…throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.… curiosity, which mayor may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It is not new. It goes back to Galileo, Bacon, and to Sir Isaac Newton, and it must be absolutely unhampered. Institutions of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity and the less they are deflected by considerations of immediacy of application, the more likely they are to contribute not only to human welfare but to the equally important satisfaction of intellectual interest which may indeed be said to have become the ruling passion of intellectual life in modern times.”At no period of Faraday’s unmatched career was he interested in utility. He was absorbed in disentangling the riddles of the universe, at first chemical riddles, in later periods, physical riddles. As far as he cared, the question of utility was never raised. Any suspicion of utility would have restricted his restless curiosity. In the end, utility resulted, but it was never a criterion to which his cease- less experimentation could be subjected