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Look at Your Fish

The writer David McCullough tacked a plaque above his desk that reads: “Look at your Fish.” It’s a story about the value of seeing.

In an interview from The Paris Review McCullough shared the story behind that short statement. It’s the test that Louis Agassiz, the nineteenth-century Harvard scientist, gave every new student. He would take a smelly, old fish out of a jar, set it in a tin pan in front of the student and say, “Look at your fish.” Then Agassiz would leave. When he came back, he would ask the students what they’d seen. “Not very much,” they would most often say, and Agassiz would say it again: “Look at your fish.”

This could go on for days. The student would be encouraged to draw the fish but could use no tools for the examination, just hands and eyes. One student, who later became a famous scientist, left us the best account of the “ordeal with the fish.” After several days, he still could not see whatever it was Agassiz wanted him to see. But, he said, “I see how little I saw before.” Then the student had a brainstorm and he announced it to Agassiz the next morning: “Paired organs, the same on both sides.” “Of course! Of course!” Agassiz said, very pleased.

When the student asked what he should do next, Agassiz said, “Look at your fish.” Insight comes, more often than not, from looking at what’s been on the table all along, in front of everybody, rather than from discovering something new.

Timothy Willard, “Understanding the Value of Chasing Beauty,” The Edges Collective (3-26-18)

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