Friday, April 14, 2017

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

Ever since finding Oswald Veblen's will, which stipulated that the Veblen House was to be a "museum and library", I've been collecting books to sit on the custom chestnut wood shelves in the living room when Mercer County finally allows our Friends of Herrontown Woods nonprofit to fix the house up. Two new additions were purchased last month at a talk by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the charismatic director of Institute for Advanced Study. With his rich baritone voice and well crafted slides, he gave a talk to a packed room at the Princeton Public Library on "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge." The title comes from Institute founder Abraham Flexner's 1939 essay, for which Dijkgraaf has written a companion essay. During the talk Dijkgraaf made a compelling case for funding research "motivated solely by curiosity and without concern for applications."

During Q and A, I asked a leading question "How did the Institute end up in Princeton?" Dijkgraaf said "Oswald Veblen", his Dutch accent imbuing the name with consequence, as he pronounced the "Ve" syllable as "vay" rather than "veh". (There's been an ongoing question as to how Veblen pronounced his last name.) The funders of the Institute, the Bamberger family that started Macy's, had wanted the institute to be near Newark. When he read about the planned institute in the NY Times, Oswald Veblen contacted Flexner and suggested locating the institute in Princeton. Like many of Veblen's ideas, initial resistance finally yielded and the idea was realized. Veblen's ideas influenced the Institute in many other ways as well, and he became its first professor.

On a personal note, the importance of basic research--following one's own curiosity--was a matter close to my father's heart, as an astronomer at Yerkes Observatory, and it was good to hear Dijkgraaf present the case so beautifully and convincingly.

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