What’s the use of useless knowledge?

That question came to mind last Friday at a reception for the Friends of the Institute for Advanced Study. It’s a nice event, designed partly to entice friends of Friends into becoming real Friends, who pay $1,750 a year to gain access to a wide variety of institute events. The evening features wines, all excellent choices as is the tradition at the institute, sumptuous hors d’oeuvres, and engaging remarks by the institute’s director, Robbert Dijkgraaf, a Dutch mathematical physicist who earlier in his career appeared on a popular television science show in the Netherlands. He is obviously smart, and surprisingly entertaining.

Dijkgraaf reminds the guests of the institute’s historical significance, both as a crucible for pure research and as a haven for great scientists. People come back to the Institute after being away for years and “feel as if nothing has changed; yet everything has changed,” he says. “The Institute has been able to maintain some very valuable elements in times of tumult.” The director refers to it as a “fixed point, as the mathematicians say.”

This year, Dijkgraaf continues, the Princeton University Press will republish a 1939 essay by Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Institute. The title: “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.”

Sounds good, I think, as I join the guests for the short walk to a concert by the Grammy-nominated Choir of Trinity Wall Street. The church choir’s credits range from its acclaimed annual performances of Handel’s Messiah to appearing with the Rolling Stones on their 50th anniversary tour. On this evening the all-male choir will sing music from the 14th and 15th centuries, as well as a 21st century composition.

The Institute’s new artist-in-residence, the Pulitzer Prize-winning David Lang, introduces the ensemble. The concert, he explains, is the first of a series he has arranged called “The Pattern Makers.” Lang launches into an explanation of the Fibonacci sequence, which begins with 0 and 1 and then adds them together to get 1 and then adds 1 and 1 together to get 2 and then 1 and 2 together to get 3 and then goes on to create the succession of numbers 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, and so on. Lang calls the proportional difference between those numbers the “golden mean,” and then makes a reference to a concept that seems so sublime that I write it down on the back of the program: “The penultimate point of the golden mean.”

If this isn’t useless knowledge I don’t know what is. But I somehow feel part of the in-crowd when Lang reveals that the length of the concert we are about to hear is exactly 55 minutes, the penultimate number on that line of numbers I wrote above.

It’s that kind of weekend. On Saturday evening I head over to the Lambertville show room of a high end sound equipment store called the Art of Sound. It’s located in an old papermaking mill that has been converted into the commercial space known as River Walk. Several artists, including my friend Sheila Watson Coutin, are exhibiting their work.

I run into Mandee Kuenzle, the publicist who has worked with U.S. 1 on any number of stories, and her husband, Will Hammerstein. Yes, that Hammerstein. He is the grandson of the famous lyricist, whose summer home was Highland Farm in Doylestown, where he wrote many of the songs for South Pacific, Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, et al. Will says that he is trying to preserve Highland Farm as a venue to celebrate the life of his grandfather. Mandee tells me that their six-week-old son is doing fine. His name? Oscar, of course. Good to know, but probably nothing I can use.

As I begin to plot my exit from the show, I spot a bench, created by furniture maker Phil Cane of Cane Farm in Rosemont. It’s a little over four feet long, about 16 inches wide, with natural, uneven edges and a rich variety of color in the maple. I like it. The sticker says it’s “spaled” maple, with a cherry inset. I find out later that spaled or “spalted” maple is wood marked with a discoloration caused by fungi. The trick, apparently, is to cut the wood and arrest the fungal attack before it renders the plank unusable. I will add spalted to my vocabulary, though I doubt I will ever get to use it.

On Sunday I walk over to the Princeton Public Library to take in some of the “Unruly Sounds” event in Hinds Plaza. It’s a succession of musical groups organized by the graduate students in Princeton University’s department of music. Unruly is a good term for this musical line-up. At times you might also call it indefinable or even unintelligible. Alyssa Weinberg, a doctoral fellow, has composed a piece for a duo to perform on vibraphone — a vibraphone with a tin can sitting on top of it, a soda bottle stuck between two keys, and violin bows as well as mallets to play it. The result is surprisingly melodious.

A group called Owen Lake and the Tragic Loves has all the trappings of an old-fashioned country and western band. But when the ensemble launches into its set, you realize it’s “electro-country” —twangs on steroids.

Unintelligible is my first reaction to the cacophony emanating from a duo called llama/lama. Two graduate students, Paul Schuette and Quinn Collins, are cranking out music with electronic synthesizers, an old fashioned turntable, radio recordings, and something they call a “handmade mbira,” referring to the African instrument consisting of metal tines mounted to a wooden block. But, not unlike the choral music of Friday night, it turns out to be mesmerizing. I hang around until their set is over.

When I ask what their sound is all about they hand me a printed card with cryptic notes:

“If (prime numbers cannot be synthesized){composite numbers are derivative;} /* Emphasizing / the virtue of prime numbers / we employ verse in duplicate, triplicate, quintacate, septacate, undecicate, . . .”

For a moment I am at a loss for words. But then it hits me. “How does this relate,” I ask knowingly, “to the penultimate point of the golden mean?”

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