Revisiting Some Archived Articles that Have Not Been Lost, but May Have Been Forgotten and Are Worth a Fresh Read
Original Post Date: March 1, 2012
In the first part of this series, we talked about the importance of counting and measuring to science. Counting and measuring are important because they help us to focus our minds on questions that can be answered with numbers. This, in turn, will help us to formulate our ideas mathematically, which will make them easier to express clearly, judge analytically, and apply methodically.
However, science is not all about breaking things down into numbers. First, prior to breaking something down into numbers, you have to know that there is something there to count! Second, there are some truths which can be seen only when you take a step back and look at the whole picture. For these reasons, we need to learn to observe deeply—looking at things with a more careful eye than usual, and taking care to notice the significant details. The primary way to learn to make these observations is to practice drawing your observations. Do not cheat—taking a picture is not the same as drawing.
Now, if you are not good at art, do not worry. The point of drawing is not to create the prettiest picture, but rather to make sure that all of the details travel all the way from our eyes to our brains to our hands. This ensures that we have managed to pull the observations into our minds in such a way that we can make use of them. Therefore, even if your scribbling is not discernible, the fact that you made it will help you pull together everything that you saw.
What should we draw? The best things to start drawing are objects of nature. Find a place in a meadow or forest to sit, and then find a plant and draw it. First, take time to carefully examine it. Notice all of its bumps, ridges, textures, lines, points, surfaces, and colors. Notice the area where it is planted and the bugs that live on it. Then, take out your notebook and your colored pencils and get to work.
The first time you draw something, it is best to do so fresh—before reading or learning about it. It is good to observe a subject from your own perspective before reading someone else’s. After you have drawn something, go identify it and read a book about it. At this point you can see if there is anything that you have missed in your drawing. Alternatively, there might be something that you drew that was important, but you did not realize its importance at the time. After doing this a few times, you can learn to be a better observer.
Louis Agassiz, one of my heroes in biology, initiated his students by forcing them to observe things deeply. Upon receiving a new student, he would hand him a preserved dead fish in a tin pan, and tell him to look at it. Then, Agassiz would leave until the end of the day, while the student was left to gaze for hours at the dead fish. One student’s story is related by David McCullough in his book, Brave Companions:
In ten minutes I had seen all that could be seen in that fish…Half an hour passed — an hour — another hour; the fish began to look loathsome. I turned it over and around; looked at it in the face — ghastly; from behind, beneath, above, sideways, at three-quarters view — just as ghastly. I was in despair.
I might not use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish: it seemed a most limited field. I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp the teeth were. I began to count the scales in different rows, until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me — I would draw the fish, and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature.
Eventually Agassiz returned and listened to his student tell of his observations. What was Agassiz’s reply? “Look again.”
I was piqued; I was mortified. Still more of that wretched fish! But now I set myself to my task with a will, and discovered one new thing after another…The afternoon passed quickly; and when, toward its close, the professor inquired: “Do you see it yet?”
“No,” I replied. “I am certain I do not, but I see how little I saw before.”
The next day, the student reported to Agassiz that the fish had symmetrical sides with paired organs. Agassiz was pleased. The student asked what he should do next, and Agassiz said, “Oh, look at your fish!” Agassiz made his student look at the fish for three full days. His students said that this deep looking, without any books, tools, or assistance, was one of the greatest lessons that he imparted to them.
So, when you spend time—ten minutes, an hour, or three days—deeply observing and drawing your subject, remember that this is how the great masters taught their students about science.