Human progress isn’t a straight line. This is as true of knowledge as anything else. Only in a computer game does knowledge accumulate through discrete ideas, with defined benefits and pathways.

In real life knowledge is messy, unpredictable and often the result of jamming together ideas and experiences in unpredictable ways. While experts can identify pertinent questions and fields for investment, history is littered with examples of unexpected intellectual explosions.

All of this came to mind as I read that the Australian government wants recipients of research grants to prove that it “advance[s] the national interest”.

Let’s overlook that the “national interest” and common sense are subjective, ever changing, and at least partially driven by intellectual progress.

One such intellectual explosion is chronicled in The unfinished game. Keith Devlin tells the story of a series of letters between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat as they try to solve what is essentially a problem for gamblers.

Called the problem of points it posits a game where two players have equal chances of winning each round. For some reason the game is disrupted before anyone has won, and so the question is how to divide the pot fairly.

Pascal and Fermat exchanged a series of letters on this problem. Although this process doesn’t pass muster as research by modern standards, would this question have passed the politicians’ test? I doubt it. But the impact has been profound.

“Within a few years of Pascal’s sending his letter, people no longer saw the future as completely unpredictable and beyond their control. They could compute the likelihoods of various things’ happening and plan their activities—and their lives—accordingly. In short, Pascal showed us how to manage risk. His letter created our modern view of the future.

From what else I’ve read, the author oversells the letters a little bit. But it was undoubtedly a precursor of modern probability theory. It was part of a movement that profoundly changed the world.

“Even those who are not schooled in the mathematics of calculating odds know that the future is not a matter of blind fate. We can often judge what is likely to happen and plan accordingly. Yet before Pascal wrote his letter to Fermat, many learned people (including some leading mathematicians) believed that predicting the likelihood of future events was simply not possible.”

Without the ability to quantify risk, there would be no liquid capital markets, and global companies like Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, DuPont, Alcoa, Merck, Boeing, and McDonald’s might never have come into being.”

“Within a hundred years of Pascal’s letter, life-expectancy tables formed the basis for the sale of life annuities in England, and London was the [centre] of a flourishing marine insurance business, without which sea transportation would have remained a domain only for those who could afford to assume the enormous risks it entailed.”

All of this isn’t to say that government’s can’t and shouldn’t roughly guide their research dollars. Some questions are more pressing or have more potential than others, which is why the current Australian system contains peer review.

But that knowledge is a simple widget or knob to be turned up or down for national benefit is an ahistorical view of progress.