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❄️ Freezethawed: The Newsletter #020 - Parable of the Sunfish

Hello everyone!

I just completed my second week of observation at Aravind Eye Hospital. The Aravind schedule is quite friendly to my natural sleep and wake patterns and though a lot of people crib about the day starting with 7am classes, I quite enjoy it. I’ve been spending most of my time in the OT’s, because quite frankly, I’ve been fascinated by their operational structure. It has been a pleasure observing the little nuances that separate this place from the rest of the crowd.

Although I get to participate in the examination process as well as the discussions, a lot of my time is spent in pure ‘observation’ and this led me to think if there is a way I can objectively get better at this. A little bit of snooping on the internet led me to the story of Louis Agassiz’s Parable of the Sunfish and the power of observation.

Parable of the Sunfish

The Parable of the Sunfish is an anecdote reflecting famous biologist, Louis Agassiz’s teaching style. It’s been told in many ways but I’ll try to narrate in the most lucid one. Here goes:

A post-graduate student equipped with various honours and diplomas went to Agassiz to receive his final manuscript following Agassiz’s finishing touches. After a brief conversation, Agassiz offered the student a small fish and told him to observe and describe it.

Student: “That’s only a Sunfish.”

Agassiz: “I know that. Write a description of it.”

After a few minutes the student returned with the description of the Ichthus Heliodiplodokus.

Agassiz again told the student to describe the fish and left the student in the room only to return after a day.

The student produced a brief summary as well as a four-page essay on the species this time. Agassiz then told him to look at the fish again. He left the room, this time only to return after 3 days.

This time, the student began to study the fish and 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 Agassiz finally returned and the student explained all that he had learned, but Agassiz replied, “that’s not right” and walked out of the room.

Shocked and angry, the student eventually recommitted to the task with new vigour. 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 produced his work to him.

Agassiz: “At the end of a week, you finally see that the fish is in an advanced state of decomposition.”

Often we look, but we do not observe. Our minds, jump to what we feel is the plausible answer, not letting our eyes tell us the entire story. Hope this was a lesson in observation for you, as it was for me, which makes me optimistic for the coming fortnight.

This leads me to another question. How can we increase our power of observation?

Retrospectively looking back, here is my 5-point list that helped me increase my power of observation:

  1. Don’t look for the good and bad in something. Judgement and observation don’t go together.
  2. Observation is an omnipresent activity your mind can adapt. Don’t keep switching it on and off.
  3. Be patient. It really is a virtue.
  4. Have an open mindset. Flexibility is your friend.
  5. Observation is an activity of all your five senses. So keep them all awake.

That’s it for this week, see you soon!


Anujeet’s book journey

This week I finished:

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

Currently I am reading:

  • Why We Sleep – Matthew Walker

Aggregate, the weekly quote

If you don't act on life, life will act on you

-Robin Sharma

Harmony, the weekly song

Blood - The Middle East

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Agassiz’s Sunfish