January 8, 2018

Understanding science

Welcome to the jungle

We're going deep: in-depth articles, interviews, and videos covering cancer, heart disease, dementia, fasting, sleep, stress, and more.

Read Time 5 minutes


nerd sa·fa·ri

/nərd/ /səˈfärē/


An obsessive, adventurous expedition with the purpose of building knowledge, especially regarding increasing the length of time one can be healthy, and alive.


If you’re reading this, it’s quite likely that on more than one occasion you’ve fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole. It wasn’t necessarily a conduit to a fantastical land. Rather, you got interested in a topic to the point of distraction and perhaps obsession. Looking up the etymology of “nerd” and “safari,” for example, can, in and of itself, turn into a nerd safari.1According to Wikipedia, the first documented use of the word nerd came from Dr. Seuss in 1950, describing the name of a creature from the book If I ran the Zoo. The narrator would collect “a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too.” More recently, the Oxford Dictionary described a nerd as “A single-minded expert in a particular field.” The Swahili word safari means journey. We could go on!

With our Nerd Safari articles, we’re not falling down the rabbit hole, we’re diving in. We love to obsess and geek-out on topics of health and longevity, and so, naturally, that will be our focus.

A good scientific journal article is an excellent conduit for a Nerd Safari. (In fact, some journal articles are outright Nerd Safaris, themselves.) Let’s say you read a review paper on the benefits of calorie restriction. That article is likely to summarize different studies of dietary restriction in many different animals over the course of many decades. It’s going to provide an overview of the metabolic and hormonal factors involved with diet. It will talk about associated diseases, calorie restriction mimetics, proposed mechanisms, nutrient sensing pathways, genetic factors, important molecules, and so on. Throughout the article there are references that go into more detail for each topic. In total, perhaps hundreds of references. Each one of those references contain many references. And on and on you can go.

With Nerd Safari, over time, you will be able to go on an in-house expedition: the more we write, the more we’ll weave threads together, linking to a growing repository of knowledge and thinking.

It’s a wonderful and daunting thing. There is so much to learn in so little time. It’s humbling and fascinating that the more you learn, the less you know. (As the saying goes, the farther you get from the shore, the deeper the water.)

The silo effect is all too common in the fields of health and longevity. There is often a lack of information flowing between specialties and branches of medicine. A good Nerd Safari mixes the grains, so to speak. By putting together information from different fields we can gain valuable insight. “It is therefore of first-rate importance that you know how to triangulate,” said Richard Feynman2Two points: One, you will hear us refer to Richard Feynman a lot. He’s sort of a god in these parts. Two, in the spirit of full disclosure, my older son’s middle name is Feynman. My friends just call him “the little physicist.” Lots to live up to, buddy… in one of his lectures on physics. “That is, to know how to figure something out from what you already know. It is absolutely necessary.” Of all the skills I have tried to perfect over the past 25 years, none rival this one. Perhaps it was out of insecurity that I felt I was not innately brilliant enough, but for whatever reason, when I first read Feynman’s work as a college freshman in the early 1990s it really hit home that while there was great value to deep domain expertise, there may be equal value to understanding how to link information across deep domains. While I doubt any of us will rival the abilities of Feynman, we can certainly die trying.

We hope to engage both the novice and professional curator of nerdy materials. We start on the shore and inevitably get into some deep waters. Dealing with gravity and resistance, for example, is better than dealing with none, and not just from a metaphorical perspective. In that vein, we’re also fond of saying “we don’t know.” There are exponentially more things we don’t know than things we do know.3And far exceeding the “known knowns” and “known unknowns” are the “unknown unknowns.”

So who is Nerd Safari for, then? Ultimately, it’s for anyone who is curious about the topics we obsess over, principally related to longevity, the extension of lifespan and health span. We hope patients (yes, we’re all patients) and physicians alike will find value in these journeys, less from a purely prescriptive vantage, but more from a place of enhanced understanding and uncertainty.4As alluded to, above, there is as much benefit in acknowledging the limits of information as there is in defining the current borders of knowledge, at least in our opinion. We also hope our musings will be of some value to investors and entrepreneurs, many of whom I’ve enjoyed sharing a whiteboard session with over the past few years. We also hope people in the research community find value in these musings. When I worked as a post-doc at NIH, as I think anyone doing research can attest to, some of my greatest ideas came by accident—listening to a journal club discussion on a seemingly unrelated topic, being asked a question I did not know the answer to, meeting a patient in clinic with an obscure illness.  Similarly, we hope scientists will find some combination of disruption and inspiration in our work and that this could lead to new research ideas to further our collective knowledge.

A main thrust of this project is to question everything, and question ourselves and our own thinking. As Feynman would say, we need to take extra care in not fooling ourselves, while remembering we are the easiest people to fool.

We want to imagine how things might look from a different point of view. Imagining we’re trying to explain our “truths” to aliens, doing Gedankenexperiments on our Gedankenexperiments, questioning everything we’ve read, seen, and heard—these things take considerable time and effort. It would be completely exhausting if it just didn’t feel so damn necessary.

We believe this investment in time is invaluable and provides an opportunity for both asymmetric and incremental returns. Maybe there’s an insight one gets from going on a nerd safari that bridges the gap for a drug or class of drugs. It might be an insight for a physician that ultimately results in a healthier patient. It also might spark someone to pursue a passion in a related field and make important contributions. A steady stream of information can also yield incremental gains that compound over time. Information that can ignite something that improves your quality and quantity of life.

We understand that people don’t think they have the time to engage in this manner. To wit, “The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed,” Amos Tversky reportedly said. “You waste years by not being able to waste hours.” James Watson, who helped unravel the mystery of DNA said, “It’s necessary to be slightly underemployed if you are to do something significant. … I was very underemployed when we solved the structure of DNA.”

Most people can’t clip these quotes and hand them to their bosses and ask for a two-day workweek. And if you saw our schedules, maybe the last word you’d use to describe them is “underemployed.” Our argument is that if you don’t stop to think about what you’re doing in what amounts in some ways as a creative space (science can be as much of an art as it is a science), you may just “waste years.” Stopping to explore often provides the kind of step-function in progress—or check on fooling yourself—that just might make your boss stop and reconsider that five-day weekend as a feature and not a bug.

While we hope we can save you some time and energy by presenting our findings to you—by triangulating, imaging things from a different perspective, trying not to fool ourselves, and presenting our findings to you—we think it’s important that you approach similar problems this way, too.

Lastly, we want to point out just how much work goes into nerd safari-ing, especially putting the polish on it to make it (we hope) readable. We accept the risk that the market for such things may be exceptionally small—though we think the demand for this is high. If the demand for this does not meet our expectations we’re happy to keep doing this work internally, as we’ve done for a couple of years already. But we hope you give us a reason to share and we hope this space is a place where people can continually enter into a journey and exit it a little wiser.

Disclaimer: This blog is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute the practice of medicine, nursing or other professional health care services, including the giving of medical advice, and no doctor/patient relationship is formed. The use of information on this blog or materials linked from this blog is at the user's own risk. The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Users should not disregard, or delay in obtaining, medical advice for any medical condition they may have, and should seek the assistance of their health care professionals for any such conditions.

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