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Famous Biologist Louis Agassiz On The Usefulness Of Learning Through Observation

Famous Biologist Louis Agassiz On The Usefulness Of Learning Through Observation

Louis Agassiz, the famous Swiss biologist, placed a fish specimen on the table in front of his post-graduate student.

“That’s only a sunfish,” the student said.

“I know that,” Agassiz replied.

He continued, “Write a description of it. Find out what you can without damaging the specimen. When I think that you have done the work I will question you.” (1)

The Power Of Observation

The student wrote for an nearly an hour, until he felt confident that he knew nearly all there was to know about this particular fish.

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Much to the student’s frustration, however, Agassiz did not return to see him that day. His teacher did not come the next day either. Nor for the entire week that followed. Eventually, the student realized Agassiz’s game: the teacher wanted him to observe the fish more deeply.

After nearly 100 hours of study, the student began to notice finer details that had escaped his vision previously: how the scales of the fish were shaped and the patterns they made, the placement of the teeth, the shape of each individual tooth, and so on. When his teacher finally returned and the student explained all that he had learned, Agassiz replied, “That’s not right.” And walked out of the room. (2)

Shocked and angry at first, the student eventually recommitted to the task with new vigor. He threw out all of his previous notes. He studied the fish for 10 hours per day for an entire week. When he met with Agassiz a final time, the student had produced work that “astonished.” (3)

louis-agassiz-by-john-adams-whipple
    Louis Agassiz circa 1865. (Photographer: John Adams Whipple.)

    The Art of Comparing Objects

    After his investigation of the sunfish, Agassiz’s student wrote, “I had learned the art of comparing objects.”

    How does this tooth compare to the one next to it? How does this scale compare to the one on the opposite side? How does the symmetry of the bottom half of the fish compare to the top half?

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    The art of comparing objects is a remarkably useful strategy in many areas of life. Take weightlifting, for example.

    For the first five years that I lifted weights, I experienced mediocre results at best. I assumed that it was information that held me back. Like many people, I thought that once I’d found the right workout routine, then I would be set. I was under the assumption that I simply hadn’t reached the next level because I hadn’t come across the right information. What I didn’t realize was my search for the perfect pre-made formula was preventing me from observing my actual results.

    When I started to observe with greater care and focus, I realized that my body tended to respond better to higher volume rather than higher intensity. I noticed that my foundational strength in major movements like the squat and deadlift was lacking. I was able to use these observational discoveries to tailor my training to my needs and, subsequently, make much greater strides because of it. It was through comparing what I was doing with what was actually working for me that I made progress.

    Do The Work For Yourself

    “I never pay attention to anything by ‘experts.’ I calculate everything myself.” — Richard Feynman

    When Richard Feynman, the brilliant physicist, was working on a new theory of beta decay, he noticed something surprising. For years, experts had been saying that beta decay occurred in a particular way, but when Feynman actually ran the experiments, he kept getting a different result.

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    Eventually, Feynman investigated the original data that all of the experts were basing their theory on and discovered that the study was flawed. For years, nobody had bothered to read or repeat the original study! All of the experts just kept quoting one another and used their mutual opinions as justification for the theory. Then Feynman came along and turned everything upside simply because he did the calculations himself. (4)

    Look, And See For Yourself

    “Take the facts into your own hands; look, and see for yourself!” — Louis Agassiz

    Pick any industry of life and you’ll find that very few people actually do the work.

    Rather than read the original study, most people cite the headline from a secondary source. Rather than spend 100 hours observing every detail of a fish, most biology students would look up the description of the fish online. When most people say, “I read an article on climate change,” what they really mean is, “I read the title of an article on climate change.”

    This is exactly why doing the boring work more consistently is actually a competitive advantage. Ignore the expert advice and pay attention to what gets results for you.

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    Look, and see for yourself.

    This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

    FOOTNOTES
    1. This story about Agassiz has been told by two different sources. First, in The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, who was a student of Agassiz. Second, in Ezra Pound’s classic book, The ABC of Reading. Pound’s version is known as the Parable of the Sunfish and deviates slightly from the original sources. I’ve done my best to represent Agassiz accurately here.
    2. From what I can tell, this was fairly standard behavior for Agassiz. He would, reportedly, “lock a student up in a room full of turtle-shells, or lobster-shells, or oyster-shells, without a book or a word to help him, and not let him out till he had discovered all the truths which the objects contained.” (Source: Speech by William James at the reception of the American Society of Naturalists on December 30, 1896.)
    3. The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler. Page 99.
    4. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman. Page 254-255.

    Featured photo credit: Eric Heupel via flickr.com

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    Last Updated on June 1, 2021

    7 Signs That You’re Way Too Busy (And Need to Change That)

    7 Signs That You’re Way Too Busy (And Need to Change That)

    “Busy” used to be a fair description of the typical schedule. More and more, though, “busy” simply doesn’t cut it.

    “Busy” has been replaced with “too busy”, “far too busy”, or “absolutely buried.” It’s true that being productive often means being busy…but it’s only true up to a point.

    As you likely know from personal experience, you can become so busy that you reach a tipping point…a point where your life tips over and falls apart because you can no longer withstand the weight of your commitments.

    Once you’ve reached that point, it becomes fairly obvious that you’ve over-committed yourself.

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    The trick, though, is to recognize the signs of “too busy” before you reach that tipping point. A little self-assessment and some proactive schedule-thinning can prevent you from having that meltdown.

    To help you in that self-assessment, here are 7 signs that you’re way too busy:

    1. You Can’t Remember the Last Time You Took a Day Off

    Occasional periods of rest are not unproductive, they are essential to productivity. Extended periods of non-stop activity result in fatigue, and fatigue results in lower-quality output. As Sydney J. Harris once said,

    “The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.”

    2. Those Closest to You Have Stopped Asking for Your Time

    Why? They simply know that you have no time to give them. Your loved ones will be persistent for a long time, but once you reach the point where they’ve stopped asking, you’ve reached a dangerous level of busy.

    3. Activities like Eating Are Always Done in Tandem with Other Tasks

    If you constantly find yourself using meal times, car rides, etc. as times to catch up on emails, phone calls, or calendar readjustments, it’s time to lighten the load.

    It’s one thing to use your time efficiently. It’s a whole different ballgame, though, when you have so little time that you can’t even focus on feeding yourself.

    4. You’re Consistently More Tired When You Get up in the Morning Than You Are When You Go to Bed

    One of the surest signs of an overloaded schedule is morning fatigue. This is a good indication that you’ve not rested well during the night, which is a good sign that you’ve got way too much on your mind.

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    If you’ve got so much to do that you can’t even shut your mind down when you’re laying in bed, you’re too busy.

    5. The Most Exercise You Get Is Sprinting from One Commitment to the Next

    It’s proven that exercise promotes healthy lives. If you don’t care about that, that’s one thing. If you’d like to exercise, though, but you just don’t have time for it, you’re too busy.

    If the closest thing you get to exercise is running from your office to your car because you’re late for your ninth appointment of the day, it’s time to slow down.

    Try these 5 Ways to Find Time for Exercise.

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    6. You Dread Getting up in the Morning

    If your days are so crammed full that you literally dread even starting them, you’re too busy. A new day should hold at least a small level of refreshment and excitement. Scale back until you find that place again.

    7. “Survival Mode” Is Your Only Mode

    If you can’t remember what it feels like to be ahead of schedule, or at least “caught up”, you’re too busy.

    So, How To Get out of Busyness?

    Take a look at this video:

    And these articles to help you get unstuck:

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    Featured photo credit: Khara Woods via unsplash.com

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