The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

Reading The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge by Abraham Flexner, and Knowledge for Sale: The neoliberal takeover of higher education by Lawrence Busch for New Scientist, 17 March 2017

 

IN 1930, the US educator Abraham Flexner set up the Institute for Advanced Study, an independent research centre in Princeton, New Jersey, where leading lights as diverse as Albert Einstein and T. S. Eliot could pursue their studies, free from everyday pressures.

For Flexner, the world was richer than the imagination could conceive and wider than ambition could encompass. The universe was full of gifts and this was why pure, “blue sky” research could not help but turn up practical results now and again, of a sort quite impossible to plan for.

So, in his 1939 essay “The usefulness of useless knowledge”, Flexner listed a few of the practical gains that have sprung from what we might, with care, term scholastic noodling. Electromagnetism was his favourite. We might add quantum physics.

Even as his institute opened its doors, the world’s biggest planned economy, the Soviet Union, was conducting a grand and opposite experiment, harnessing all the sciences for their immediate utility and problem-solving ability.

During the cold war, the vast majority of Soviet scientists were reduced to mediocrity, given only sharply defined engineering problems to solve. Flexner’s better-known affiliates, meanwhile, garnered reputations akin to those enjoyed by other mascots of Western intellectual liberty: abstract-expressionist artists and jazz musicians.

At a time when academia is once again under pressure to account for itself, the Princeton University Press reprint of Flexner’s essay is timely. Its preface, however, is another matter. Written by current institute director Robbert Dijkgraaf, it exposes our utterly instrumental times. For example, he employs junk metrics such as “more than half of all economic growth comes from innovation”. What for Flexner was a rather sardonic nod to the bottom line, has become for Dijkgraaf the entire argument – as though “pure research” simply meant “long-term investment”, and civic support came not from existential confidence and intellectual curiosity, but from scientists “sharing the latest discoveries and personal stories”. So much for escaping quotidian demands.

We do not know what the tightening of funding for scientific research that has taken place over the past 40 years would have done for Flexner’s own sense of noblesse oblige. But this we can be sure of: utilitarian approaches to higher education are dominant now, to the point of monopoly. The administrative burdens and stultifying oversight structures throttling today’s scholars come not from Soviet-style central planning, but from the application of market principles – an irony that the sociologist Lawrence Busch explores exhaustively in his monograph Knowledge for Sale.

Busch explains how the first neo-liberal thinkers sought to prevent the rise of totalitarian regimes by replacing governance with markets. Those thinkers believed that markets were safer than governments because they were cybernetic and so corrected themselves. Right?

Wrong: Busch provides ghastly disproofs of this neo-liberal vision from within the hall of academe, from bad habits such as a focus on counting citations and publication output, through fraud, to existential crises such as the shift in the ideal of education from a public to a private good. But if our ingenious, post-war market solution to the totalitarian nightmare of the 1940s has itself turned out to be a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity (as journalist Matt Taibbi once described investment bank Goldman Sachs), where have we left to go?

Flexner’s solution requires from us a confidence that is hard to muster right now. We have to remember that the point of study is not to power, enable, de-glitch or otherwise save civilisation. The point of study is to create a civilisation worth saving.

“Some only appear crazy. Others are as mad as a bag of cats”

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Stalin’s more eccentric scientists are the subject of this blogpost for Faber & Faber.

Stalin and the Scientists describes what happened when, early in the twentieth century, a handful of impoverished and under-employed graduates, professors and entrepreneurs, collectors and charlatans, bound themselves to a failing government to create a world superpower. Envied and obsessed over by Joseph Stalin — ‘the Great Scientist’ himself — scientists in disciplines from physics to psychology managed to steer his empire through famine, drought, soil exhaustion, war, rampant alcoholism, a huge orphan problem, epidemics and an average life expectancy of thirty years. Hardly any of them are well known outside Russia, yet their work shaped global progress for well over a century.

Cold War propaganda cast Soviet science as an eccentric, gimcrack, often sinister enterprise. And, to my secret delight, not every wild story proved to be a fabrication. Indeed, a heartening amount of the smoke shrouding Soviet scientific achievement can be traced back to intellectual arson attacks of one sort or another.

I’ll leave it to the book to explain why Stalin’s scientists deserve our admiration and respect. This is the internet, so let’s have some fun. Here, in no particular order, are my my top five scientific eccentrics. Some only appear crazy; others have had craziness thrust upon them by hostile commentators. Still others were as mad as a bag of cats.

1. Ilya Ivanov
Ilya Ivanov, the animal breeding expert who tried to mate humans with chimpanzees

By the time of the 1917 revolution, Ilya Ivanov was already an international celebrity. His pioneering artificial insemination techniques were transforming world agriculture. However, once he lost his Tsarist patrons, he had to find a research programme that would catch the eye of the new government’s Commissariat of Education. What he came up with was certainly compelling: a proposal to cross-breed humans and chimpanzees.

We now know there are immunological difficulties preventing such a cross, but the basic idea is not at all crazy, and Ivanov got funding from Paris and America to travel to Guinea to further the study.

Practically and ethically the venture was a disaster. Arriving at the primate centre in Kindia, Ivanov discovered that its staff were killing and maiming far more primates than they ever managed to capture. To make matters worse, after a series of gruesome and rapine attempts to impregnate chimpanzees with human sperm, Ivanov decided it might be easier to turn the experiment on its head and fertilise African women with primate sperm. Unfortunately, he failed to tell them what he was doing.

Ivanov was got rid of during the Purges of the late 1930s thanks to a denunciation by an ambitious colleague, but his legacy survives. The primate sanctuary he founded in Sukhumi by the Black Sea provided primates for the Soviet space programme. Meanwhile the local tourist industry makes the most of, and indeed maintains, persistent rumours that the local woods are haunted by seven-foot-tall Stalinist ape-men.

2. Alexander Bogdanov
whose Mars-set science fiction laid the groundwork for the Soviet Union’s first blood transfusion service — and who died of blood poisoning

Alexander Alexandrovich Bogdanov, co-founder of the Bolshevik movement, lost interest in politics, even as control came within his grasp, because he wanted more time for his writing.

In his novels Red Star and Engineer Menni, blood exchanges among his Martian protagonists level out their individual and sexual differences and extend their lifespan through the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

These scientific fantasies took an experimental turn in 1921 during a trade junket to London when he happened across Blood Transfusion, a book by Geoffrey Keynes (younger brother of the economist). Two years of private experiments followed, culminating in an appointment with the Communist Party’s general secretary, Joseph Stalin. Bogdanov was quickly installed as head of a new ‘scientific research institute of blood transfusion’.

Blood, Bogdanov claimed, was a universal tissue that unified all other organs, tissues and cells. Transfusions offered the client better sleep, a fresher complexion, a change in eyeglass prescriptions, and greater resistance to fatigue. On 24 March 1928 he conducted a typically Martian experiment, mutually transfusing blood with a male student, suffered a massive transfusion reaction and died two weeks later at the age of fifty-four.

Bogdanov the scientist never offered up his studies to the review of his peers. In fact he never wrote any actual science at all, just propaganda for the popular press. In this, he resembled no-one so much as the notorious charlatan (and Stalin’s poster boy) Trofim Lysenko. I reckon it was his example made Trofim Lysenko politically possible.

3. Trofim Lysenko
Stalin’s poster-boy, who believed plants sacrifice themselves for their strongest neighbour — and was given the job of reforesting European Russia.

Practical, working-class, ambitious and working for the common good, the agrobiologist Trofim Lysenko was the very model of the new Soviet scientist. Rather than studying ‘the hairy legs of flies’, ran one Pravda profile in August 1927, this sober young man ‘went to the root of things,’ solving practical problems by a few calculations ‘on a little old piece of paper’.

As he studied how different varieties of the same crop responded to being planted at different times, he never actually touched any mathematics, relying instead on crude theories ‘proved’ by arbitrary examples.

Lysenko wanted, above all else, to be an original. An otherwise enthusiastic official report warned that he was an ‘extremely egotistical person, deeming himself to be a new Messiah of biological science.’ Unable to understand the new-fangled genetics, he did everything he could to banish it from biology. In its place he championed ‘vernalisation’, a planting technique that failed dismally to increase yields. Undeterred, he went on to theorise about species formation, and advised the government on everything, from how to plant oak trees across the entire Soviet Union to how to increase the butterfat content of milk. The practical results of his advices were uniformly disastrous and yet, through a combination of belligerence, working-class credentials, and a phenomenal amount of luck, he remained the poster-boy of Soviet agriculture right up until the fall of Khrushchev in 1964.

Nor is his ghost quite laid to rest. A couple of politically motivated historians are even now attempting to recast Lysenko as a cruelly sidelined pioneer of epigenetics (the study of how the environment regulates gene expression). This is a cruel irony, since Soviet Russia really was the birthplace of epigenetics! And it was Lysenko’s self-serving campaigns that saw that every single worker in that field was sacked and ruined.

4. Olga Lepeshinskaya
who screened in reverse films of rotting eggs to prove her theories about cell development — and won a Stalin Prize

Olga Lepeshinskaya, a personal friend of Lenin and his wife, was terrifyingly well-connected and not remotely intimidated by power. On a personal level, she was charming. She fiercely opposed anti-semitism, and had dedicated her personal life to the orphan problem, bringing up at least half a dozen children as her own.

As a scientist, however, she was a disaster. She once announced to the Academic Council of the Institute of Morphology that soda baths could rejuvenate the old and preserve the youth of the young. A couple of weeks later Moscow completely sold out of baking soda.

In her old age, Lepeshinskaya became entranced by the mystical concept of the ‘vital substance’, and recruited her extended family to work in her ‘laboratory’, pounding beetroot seeds in a pestle to demonstrate that any part of the seed could germinate. She even claimed to have filmed living cells emerge from noncellular materials. Lysenko hailed Lepeshinskaya’s discovery as the basis for a new theory of species formation, and in May 1950 Alexander Oparin, head of the Academy of Sciences’ biology department, invited Olga Lepeshinskaya to receive her Stalin Prize.

It was all a fraud, of course: she had been filming the death and decomposition of cells, then running her film backwards through the projector. Lepeshinskaya made a splendid myth. The subject of poetry. The heroine of countless plays. In school and university textbooks she was hailed as the author of the greatest biological discovery of all time.

5. Joseph Stalin
whose obsession with growing lemons in Siberia became his only hobby

Stalin, typically for his day, believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics – that a giraffe that has to stretch to reach high leaves will have long-necked children. He assumed that, given the right conditions, living things were malleable, and as the years went by this obsession grew. In 1946 he became especially keen on lemons, not only encouraging their growth in coastal Georgia, where they fared quite well, but also in the Crimea, where winter frosts destroyed them.

Changing the nature of lemons became Stalin’s sole hobby. At his dachas near Moscow and in the south, large greenhouses were erected so that he could enter them directly from the house, day or night. Pruning shrubs and plants was his only physical exercise.

Stalin shared with his fellow Bolsheviks the idea that they had to be philosophers in order to deserve their mandate. He schooled the USSR’s most prominent philosopher, Georgy Aleksandrov, on Hegel’s role in the history of Marxism. He told the composer Dmitry Shostakovich how to change the orchestration for the new national anthem. He commissioned the celebrated war poet Konstantin Simonov to write a play about a famous medical controversy, treated him to an hour of literary criticism, and then rewrote the closing scenes himself. Sergei Eisenstein and his scriptwriter on Ivan the Terrible Part Two were treated to a filmmaking masterclass. And in 1950, while he was negotiating a pact with the People’s Republic of China, and discussing how to invade South Korea with Kim Il Sung, Stalin was also writing a combative article about linguistics, and meeting with economists multiple times to discuss a textbook.

Stalin’s paranoia eventually pushed him into pronouncements that were more and more peculiar. Unable to trust even himself, it came to Joseph Stalin that people were, or ought to be, completely readable from first to last. All it needed was an entirely verbal theory of mind. ‘There is nothing in the human being which cannot be verbalised,’ he asserted, in 1949. ‘What a person hides from himself he hides from society. There is nothing in the Soviet society that is not expressed in words. There are no naked thoughts. There exists nothing at all except words.’

For Stalin, in the end, even a person’s most inner world was readable – because if it wasn’t, then it couldn’t possibly exist.

 

 

Come journey with me to Zochonis TH A (B5)!

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‘Putting the Science in Fiction’ – an Interfaculty Symposium on Science and Entertainment – takes place there on Wednesday 25 April 9:30am to 5pm.

Zochonis TH A (B5) is, in fact, in Manchester. Well, it’s a bit of Manchester University. Oh, I don’t know, I’ll just turn up early and find some corridor to sit down in and start screaming; someone’s bound to find me and steer me to the right place sooner or later.

Once there, I’ll find myself in good company. Confirmed speakers include Stephen Baxter,  Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, Geoff Ryman (the eminence grise behind this junket), Justina Robson and Matthew Cobb, among many others.

Watch us all “forge new relationships between the scientific community and the arts/entertainment community”. There is no cost for the workshop, but spaces are limited so you will need to book a place by contacting scienceinfiction.manchester@gmail.com

And visit http://bit.ly/yxgLGQ

It won’t tell you where Zochonis TH A (B5) is, but at least you’ll know I’m not making it up.

What Soviet science did for us

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I’m preparing a series of talks for Pushkin House in London, to tie in with a long project on science under Joseph Stalin. While we’re finalising the programme, these notes will give you an idea what to expect.

Russia’s Other Culture: science and technology in 20th century.

 

Early in the twentieth century, a few marginal scientists bound themselves to a bankrupt government to create a world superpower. Russia’s political elites embraced science, patronised it, fetishized it, and even tried to impersonate it. Many Soviet scientists led a charmed life. Others were ruined by their closeness to power. Four illustrated talks reveal how this stormy marriage between science and state has shaped the modern world.

 

1. The Men Who Fell to Earth: How Russia’s pilots, parachutists and pioneers won the space race.
November 2011.

 

In the 1950s and 1960s Sergei Korolev and the Soviet space programme laid a path to the stars. Now Russia is our only lifeline to the technologies and machines we have put in orbit. Simon Ings is joined by Doug Millard, Senior Curator of ICT & Space Technology at London’s Science Museum, to trace Russia’s centuries-old obsession with flight. This was the nation that erected skydiving towers in its playgrounds, built planes so large and so strange, the rest of the world thought they were fakes, and outdid Germany and the US in its cinematic portrayal of space. The nation’s soaring imagination continues to astonish the world.

 

The talk coincides with 50th anniversary of pioneering space travel by Yuri Gagarin

 

2. Prospectors: Why Russia sits on plenty and never gets rich
January 2012

 

The old boast ran that Russia governed an empire with more surface area than the visible moon. Still, 40 per cent of it lay under permafrost, and no Romanov before Alexander II so much as set foot in Siberia. Defying nature, the Bolsheviks forcibly industrialized the region, built factories and cities, and operated industries in some of the most forbidding places on the planet. Beginning with the construction of the Transsiberian railway, and ending with the planting of the Russian flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, this is a story of visionaries and idealists, traitors, despots, and the occasional fool.

 

The talk will form part of a week of activity marking the fifth anniversary of Pushkin House’s establishment in Bloomsbury.

 

3. Red Harvest: What Russia’s famines taught us about the living world.    
March 2012

 

After the civil war, the Bolsheviks turned to the revolutionary science of genetics for help in securing the Soviet food supply. The young Soviet Union became a world leader in genetics and shared its knowledge with Germany. Then Stalin’s impatience and suspicion destroyed the field and virtually wiped out Russian agriculture. Stalin was right to be suspicious: genetics had promised the world a future of health and longevity, but by the 1940s it was delivering death camps and human vivisection. Genetic advances have made possible our world of plenty – but why did the human cost have to be so high?

 

4. “General Healthification”: Russia’s unsung sciences of the mind.
May 2012

 

The way we teach and care for our children owes much to a handful of largely forgotten Russian pioneers. Years after their deaths, the psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, the psychologist Lev Vygotsky and the pioneering neuroscientist Alexander Luria have an unseen influence over our everyday thinking. In our factories and offices, too, Soviet psychology plays a role, fitting us to our tasks, ensuring our safety and our health. Our assumptions about health care and the role of the state all owe a huge debt to the Soviet example. But these ideas have a deeper history. Many of them originated in America. The last lecture in this series celebrates the fertile yet largely forgotten intellectual love affair between America and the young Soviet Union.