Robbert Dijkgraaf

Robbert Dijkgraaf, Institute for Advanced Studies

Monday, 4 June 2018 at 15:00 in the Large Operon, EMBL Heidelberg

Robbert Dijkgraaf, Institute for Advanced Studies

Usefulness of Useless Knowledge


In his classic essay, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the man who helped bring Albert Einstein to the United States, describes a great paradox of scientific research. The search for answers to deep questions, motivated solely by curiosity and without concern for applications, often leads not only to the greatest scientific discoveries but also the most revolutionary technological breakthroughs. In short, no quantum mechanics, no computer chips. Robbert Dijkgraaf, the Institute’s current director, explains how Flexner’s defense of the value of “the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge” may be even more relevant today than it was in the early twentieth century. Dijkgraaf describes how basic research has led to major transformations in the past century and explains why it is an essential precondition of innovation and the first step in social and cultural change.


Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director and Leon Levy Professor of the Institute for Advanced Study since 2012, is a mathematical physicist who has made significant contributions to string theory and the advancement of science education. He is President of the InterAcademy Partnership, a past President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a distinguished public policy adviser and advocate for science and the arts. For his contributions to science, he has received the Spinoza Prize, the highest scientific award in the Netherlands, and has been named a Knight of the Order of the Netherlands Lion. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. He is also a trained artist, writer, and popular lecturer.