Useless and Pointless Knowledge

Bob Dylan released Tombstone Blues, from which the above title comes, in the same year I started my maths degree course. The Mathematics Department divided into two distinct cultural camps: pure and applied. The pure mathematicians were snobs. They looked down on their lesser “applied” colleagues, who got their hands dirty by supplying useful tools for scientists, architects, meteorologists and all sorts of other people in the “real” world. To the purists, the quest was for “beauty” and the term was often used synonymously with “uselessness”: the more useless, the more beautiful.

One small part of my course concerned number theory and a subset of this dealt with prime numbers and modular arithmetic. (Links are provided for anyone who is curious or sad enough to want to know more; otherwise, read on…) Frankly, I found this part of the course a bit boring and – dare I say? – pointless. However, its enthusiasts pointed out how elegant, how beautiful and, above all, how useless it all was.

Fast forward thirty years. My son was now a student, reading computer science. He told me about an assignment he had to do, concerning encryption on the internet. The purpose of the assignment was to find the most efficient way to write computer code which would encrypt and decrypt data to keep it secure over the web. These were the days before superfast broadband, and speed of transmission was all-important. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that underlying the encryption systems was the same useless maths I had learnt thirty years earlier!

My point is this. In the days since I was a student, the debate around education and its purpose has shifted more and more to a purely economic one. The talk is all about training the minds of the next generation to maximize their own job prospects and for the greater good of “UK plc”. Whatever happened to the idea of knowledge, insight and even appreciation of beauty as moral goods in their own right?

So, the next time you stand in awe at a beautiful sight, when someone tells you some strange, new fact that doesn’t fit – that makes you think: “hang on a minute” – or, more basically, the next time you’re doing some online shopping, just spare a thought and raise a cheer to all that “useless and pointless knowledge”!


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