Abraham Flexner, a founder of the Institute for Advanced Study, began his 1939 paper, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” with these words,
Is it not a curious fact that in a world steeped in irrational hatreds which threaten civilization itself, men and women – old and young – detach themselves wholly or partly from the angry current of daily life to devote themselves to the cultivation of beauty, to the extension of knowledge, the cure of disease, to the amelioration of suffering, just as though fanatics were not simultaneously engaged in spreading pain, ugliness and suffering? The world has always been a sorry and confused sort of place – yet poets and artists and scientists have ignored the factors that would, it attended to, paralyzed them. From a practical point of view, intellectual and spiritual life is, on the surface, a useless form of activity, in which men indulge because they procure for themselves greater satisfactions than are otherwise obtainable. In this paper I shall concern myself with the question of the extent to which the pursuit of these useless satisfactions proves unexpectedly the source from which undreamed-of utility is derived.