mercredi 14 octobre 2009

The most wonderful things in life...

...come out of seemingly pointless endeavours. (There’s no such thing as pointless research! And how can you say that an evening spent in the tub sipping wine and chatting is a waste of time?)

From today’s Globe and Mail:

A major furor erupted in Britain recently when the government announced that it had introduced measures to eradicate "pointless research." Under the new system, universities will have to prove that their research influences the economy, public policy or society in order to secure the biggest research grants, according to the British funding body for higher education.


If government officials are left to decide what’s relevant and what isn’t, we risk losing a lot.


Dictators through out the ages, including Napoleon, have insisted that scientific research be geared toward the self-serving values of the state. Whereas more laissez-faire periods of intellectual liberalism (the German enlightenment of the 19th century, for instance) have historically produced extraordinary practical applications out of "pure science." An excellent example is German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen, who won the Nobel Prize after he accidentally discovered the X-ray while fooling around with some vacuum tubes and live wires.

Similarly, G.H. Hardy, an English mathematician who gloried in his own pointlessness, declared, "I have never done anything ’useful.’ No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world." He was wrong. His prime number theorem is now essential for Internet shopping, as it provides the encryption needed to ensure secure transactions.

Gustave Flaubert often said that what he longed to do most was write a novel "about nothing," a book held together "only by the internal force of its style." It’s a dream that most artists, like scientists, instinctively understand. But it’s also one that applies to the daily grind of human existence.

The most wonderful things in life come out of seemingly pointless endeavours. A walk in the woods, a picnic in the park, the decision to jump into a bubble bath or a mud puddle. All are pretty irrelevant things to do with your time (you’ll never get back that precious hour of your life you spent splayed on the grass finding faces in the clouds) and yet who would argue that such pleasures are a waste of time? […]”

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