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Can ‘useless’ knowledge be useful?


Fabiola Gianotti is the Director-General of CERN.

Fabiola Gianotti, CERN’s Director-General, explains why knowledge for knowledge’s sake is the most valuable commodity we possess

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A tomography machine developed at CERN. Machines like this are used in PET (positron emission tomography) scanners for medical imaging. Technology to improve these techniques is being investigated at CERN. (Image: Maximilien Brice/ Samuel Morier-Genoud/ CERN)

As far back as 1939, Abraham Flexner penned a stirring paean to basic research in Harpers magazine under the title: ‘The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge’. Flexner, perhaps being intentionally provocative, pointed out that Marconi’s contribution to the radio and wireless had been practically negligible. He went on to argue that the 1865 work of James Clerk Maxwell on the theoretical underpinnings of electricity and magnetism, and the subsequent experimental work of Heinrich Hertz on the detection of electromagnetic waves, was done with no concern about the practical utility of the work.

Maxwell and Hertz cared only about the adding to our shared pool of knowledge on the workings of the natural world. The knowledge they sought, in other words, was never targeted to a specific application. Without it, however, there could have been no Marconi, no wireless, no radio, no television and no mobile phones.

Nurturing scientific minds is child’s play

The history of innovation is full of such examples. Indeed, it is practically impossible to find a piece of technology that cannot be traced back to the work of scientists motivated purely by a desire to understand the world we inhabit.

But basic research goes further. There is something primordial about it. Every child is a natural scientist, imbued with curiosity, vivid imagination and a desire to learn. It is what sets us apart from any other species, and it is what has provided the wellspring of innovation since early humans harnessed fire and invented wheels. Children are always asking questions. Why is the sky blue? What are we made of? What are those specks of twinkling light in the night sky? It’s by investigating questions like these that science has advanced, and that we can inspire children to grow up into future scientists or scientifically aware citizens.

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“Nurturing curious minds is one of CERN’s goals, and education and training are among our core missions,” says Fabiola Gianotti, CERN’s Director General. Here students build their own cloud chambers at S’Cool LAB, a new hands-on particle physics learning laboratory at CERN, which enables high-school children to conduct experiments and participate in workshops. (Image: Jeff Wiener/ CERN)

Nurturing curious minds is one of CERN’s goals, and education and training are among our core missions. Over the years we have developed programmes that reach everyone from primary school children to professional physicists, accelerator scientists and computer scientists. We also keep tabs on the whereabouts of young people passing through CERN, and it is very enriching to follow their progress. About a thousand people a year receive higher degrees from universities around the world for work carried out at CERN.

Basic research therefore not only inspires young people to study science, it also provides a steady stream of qualified people for business and industry, where their high-tech, international experience allows them to make a positive impact around the world.

Global Goals

Turning to the UN’s admirably ambitious Global Goals, the focus on science and technology in Agenda 2030 is positive and encouraging. It testifies to a deeper understanding of the importance of science in driving progress that benefits all peoples and helps to overcome today’s most pressing development challenges.

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CERN has a long history of knowledge transfer where technologies and know how developed in the lab are translated into real-world businesses and products that benefit society. Here a scanning electron microscope (SEM) allows detailed optical observations of samples that underwent Cryogenic Tensile Testing. This means the tensile properties of materials can be investigated to better understand how they behave under different conditions. (Image: Maximilien Brice and Samuel Morier-Genoud/CERN)

But Agenda 2030’s potential  can only be fulfilled through sustained commitment and funding by governments. If we are to tackle issues from eliminating poverty and hunger to providing clean and affordable energy, we need science and we need scientifically aware citizens.

Places like CERN are a vitally important ingredient in the innovation chain. We contribute to the kind of knowledge that not only enriches humanity, but also provides the wellspring of ideas that become the technologies of the future. We develop technologies ourselves that have immediate applications for the benefit of society: technologies like the World Wide Web and the application of particle accelerators, one of CERN’s core areas of expertise, to fields as diverse as food sterilisation and cancer therapy. And we train the young people. 

All this is possible because governments support STEM education and basic research. But we should do more: we should aim to ring-fence a minimum investment in STEM education and basic research in GDP terms for every country in the world. That is the way to long-term development and sustainability.

At the "Internet, Web, What's next?" conference on 26 June 1998 at CERN: Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and Director of the W3C, explains how the Web came to be and gave his views on the future. The WWW is one of the many inventions that came out of ideas born at CERN that have had huge implications and benefits for society. (Image: CERN)

The scientific community, including CERN, urged Agenda 2030 to ask that there be a minimum GDP percentage devoted by every nation to STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education) and basic research. This is particularly important in times of economic downturn, when private funding naturally concentrates on short-term payback and governments focus on domains that offer immediate economic return, at the expense of longer-term investment in fundamental science.

Useless knowledge, as Flexner called it, is at the basis of human development. Humankind’s continuing pursuit of it will make the development goals achievable.


A longer version of this article was originally written and will be published as part of the Big Bet Initiative.