Methodically expanding our understanding of the world.

The Scientific Method

If you could meet the first humans and share just one modern idea with them, which would you choose?

Perhaps the most powerful insight you could pass along is the scientific method: By establishing a falsifiable hypothesis, then modifying one variable at a time in a controlled environment and rigorously measuring any changes, you can systematically create new knowledge.

This process creates the building blocks that unlock all future discoveries, and we owe so much of our contemporary existence to it.

From our vantage point, it can be hard to appreciate how much progress humans have made in just the past couple centuries.

Consider the advances in medicine, for example. As the physiologist Lawrence Henderson once pointed out:

At some point between 1900 and 1912, a random patient with a random disease, consulting a doctor chosen at random, had for the first time in history a better than fifty-fifty chance of profiting from the encounter.

Bleeding people, it turns out, isn’t an effective way to treat diseases, and washing your hands before surgery dramatically improves the patient’s outcome. Today, we take those ideas for granted, but without the scientific method, we wouldn’t have that knowledge, and doctors would still be hurting patients more often than not.

These advances have played out across disciplines, and not just on a species-wide level, but at an individual level as well. Average IQs (an imperfect measure of intelligence, but still a useful metric in this case) have skyrocketed. Here’s David Epstein in his book Range:

The Flynn effect — the increase in correct IQ test answers with each new generation in the twentieth century — has now been documented in more than thirty countries. The gains are startling: three points every ten years. To put that in perspective, if an adult who scored average today were compared to adults a century ago, she would be in the 98th percentile.

That is a staggering rate of progress. As civilization advances, so does access to education.

When we popularized the scientific method at the dawn of the enlightenment, it equipped us to turn on the lights that reveal the inner workings of the universe.

As each light turns on, we reveal the next.

And we’re just getting started.

Sunlight is Medicine

The science is clear: Making your bed in the morning makes you happier and more productive.

Why? In addition to giving you a small boost of satisfaction, it also creates a small space of order in our home.

If you visit Chipotle, you’ll find a different kind of order: bright, fluorescent lights; uncomfortable chairs; and metal tables. These are not accidents — they are carefully considered choices to alter your behavior.

They want you to leave as soon as you’re done eating.

Unlike your local coffee shop, which might even have a couch or two, Chipotle’s business model doesn’t depend on perks like free wi-fi to lure you in. Their business is serving as many people per hour as possible. Sure, the coffee shop wants to do that too, but the reasons you go there are different.

Our environments affect our behavior, how we feel, and more.

Here’s another example: Hospitals aren’t known for their interior design, but studies show we should care much more about it. Here are the results from one such study:

Twenty-three surgical patients assigned to rooms with windows looking out on a natural scene had shorter postoperative hospital stays, received fewer negative evaluative comments in nurses' notes, and took fewer potent analgesics than 23 matched patients in similar rooms with windows facing a brick building wall.

That’s a small sample size — too small to draw conclusions from. But results like these show up over and over again:

Patients with bipolar disorder spent four days less in the hospital on average when they were assigned east-facing rooms that captured morning sunlight, according to an investigation conducted by neuropsychiatric doctors in Italy. Whereas in Sweden, an architect renovated a neonatal critical care unit in a hospital after shadowing the employees. Premature newborns' hospital stays were significantly reduced once the program was implemented.

In a study of aggressive patients, doctors found that patients whose rooms had posters displaying views of nature had 70 percent fewer sedative injections than those whose rooms had blank walls.

Anyone who’s walked outside and noticed their mood improve knows that nature is good for us. Green makes us calmer — it's why actors prepare for their performances in a "green room."

But the results of these studies suggest something much more profound: The space around us, when thoughtfully designed, contributes to our healing. Sunlight is medicine.

Our environment physically shapes us. Or as Winston Churchill said, "We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us."

Borrowed Stardust

We know that the universe is not both (1) infinitely old and (2) infinitely big, because if both things were true, the night sky would be completely lit up.

Light would be coming from all directions from an infinite series of galaxies, and that light would have had time to reach us.

Instead, our vantage point looks like this:

Image of many colorful points of light against a dark sky

To capture that image, the Hubble opened its shutter to the universe for a whopping 11.3 days. The points of light here are not stars, they're galaxies. And each of those galaxies contains billions of stars.

The Fermi Paradox poses the question: Given that the universe is so massive, and given that it must have many places that can support life, where is everyone else? Surely enough time has passed for an advanced civilization to invent interstellar travel. So why haven't we made contact with any other life forms?

John von Neumann pointed out in the 1950s that the easiest way for such a civilization to explore the universe would be to create a series of probes that were capable of building copies of themselves. As they encountered more solar systems and more materials, the number of probes would explode exponentially, making it relatively easy to colonize vast swaths of the cosmos.

But we have yet to find evidence of such advanced peers, so we are left alone to ponder these questions for now.

Our lives are incredibly finite, compared to the age of the universe, but we are lucky to have our "borrowed stardust" (to steal Maria Popova's phrase) to briefly experience the wonder of the cosmos.

It reminds us that there is more to our days than the next item on our to do lists — that life is a journey, not a destination. And that exploring these mysteries is but one path towards a life well-lived.

See also: Cosmic Songs

Hidden Order

In 2013, a group of researchers discovered that dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field. Here were their results:

Dogs preferred to excrete with the body being aligned along the North–South axis under calm MF [magnetic field] conditions. This directional behavior was abolished under unstable MF. The best predictor of the behavioral switch was the rate of change in declination, i.e., polar orientation of the MF.

Translation: Dogs prefer to poop facing either north or south.

By analyzing their excretion directions under different magnetic field conditions, the team found that dogs respond to tiny changes in polarity.

A useful reminder that the world is not always as random as it seems.


Reflections on creating systems to sustainably grow your impact on the world.
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