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.”

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.

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 one hundreds 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.

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.”

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?

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 found the right workout routine, then I would be set. I was under the assumption that I simply hadn’t reached the next level yet 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.

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