Decoding Decoding the World

a review on the Indiebio guys’ book

Sofia Sanchez
8 min readSep 23, 2021

IndieBio is the place where entrepreneurship meets science, founders from diverse backgrounds connect, and solutions to the world’s biggest problems come to life.

Arvind Gupta is the founder of Indiebio and Po Branson is the managing director. They both wrote the most creative book I’ve ever read: Decoding the world, on the science of our future.

This article is my take (my interpretation and thoughts) on the 5 most interesting ideas I read about in this book.

1/ Science as a way of seeing the world

There’s one chapter about the scientific revolution. Arvind tells the story of his trip to Wittenberg, the place where Martin Luther started the protestant movement, and the place where science is considered to have been born.

The most radical idea back then was that the nature of reality can be determined through empirical proof. Science tells us that we don’t need to trust anyone, not even scientists themselves. We should seek understanding and prove things for ourselves.

The first principle of science; the thing that gives rise to science is questioning. The freer we feel to question, the faster science will advance, which reminds me of Paul Graham’s essay “What you can’t say”. I think that we are constrained by our ignorance, our inability to know what we don’t know. The antidote is playing devil’s advocate on each other’s and our own beliefs.

Let’s get meta: how could the scientific method itself improve? Should we apply the scientific method to improve the scientific method? I recently read about meta-science and I’m still trying to come up with a hypothesis (or something else) for that question.

I’d rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned — Rich Feynman

This applies to the nature of reality as well as the nature of our societies. The fact is that people are harder to predict and science takes years to develop: it took Copernicus 2 decades to work on his astronomy and it took Luther 20 minutes to post his theses. Therefore, we need both Luthers and Copernicuses working together to move the needle.

Why do people laugh at the unknown? It is a beautiful place not knowing. Learning through action

Today, Google can provide the answer to almost any question we have. However, could this constrain our creativity too? Po likes playing a game instead: together with friends, trying to figure out the answers to a question before reading any papers. You may stumble upon a unique idea that way.

These Indiebio guys showed me that scientists don’t have to be boring and they reminded me that the most fundamental characteristic of a scientist is being curious and skeptical. My hypothesis is that everyone can be a scientist because science is a way of decoding the world.

2/ Don’t call it climate change. It’s inertia.

We’re all tired of hearing the same climate change speech. This is where I make my point that science is a way of seeing the world. Throughout the book, the Indiebio guys introduce me to inertia: the tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged.

Questions lead to change, change leads to progress, and sustainable progress leads to wellbeing. It still feels weird to write that inertia is keeping us from solving the world’s biggest problems but the book makes it clear with one example: 40% of the world’s energy still relies on coal. Of course, it’s energy-efficient, but coal miners also keep doing that because they need to pay their debt.

I barely know any physics or chemistry but activation energy comes to mind as well: the minimum quantity of energy that the reacting species must possess in order to undergo a specified reaction. If a significant change in our ecological situation was this reaction, what is the activation energy?

Scientific mental models I like

I don’t think you’ll find pair of VCs who write about that Buzzfeed dress poll. In their words, if we can’t agree on the color of a dress, how are we going to agree on the climate change problem? Where should funding go? Which is the most urgent root cause to attack?

By the end of the book, they tell the story of how they met Tom Chi, one of the cofounders of GoogleX at a Silicon Valley party. Tom did the math and calculated that trees are a good solution to our climate inertia. He built a drone that can plant 120 trees per minute and his goal is to plant 20 billion a year for $80 million with 450 people.

Many people talk about CO2 in the air. I didn’t know there was a loooot of it in the ocean as well, and it’s starting to cause trouble to marine life. According to the authors, we just need to find a way to put 11% of it into the soil and we’ll be fine.

How though? Hang on to the 5th section. Synbio has a wide catalog.

3/ China.

🤨 I thought this would be a science book! Well, the chapters talking about China blew my mind more than any others.

The rebuilding of China was happening before my eyes. In my 3 years there, almost none of the buildings, bridges, and roads had existed a decade prior. It made me believe that transformation on a large scale was possible. A billion people at once could just start over, do it another way — Arvind

The first chapter touches on Yiwu, the largest commercial center in the world. I remember that in my interview with Josiah Zayner, we talk about physical v. digital goods. Ever since then I’ve been wondering how the world will look like when biotech products are so common as to find them in local supermarkets and malls. How does the Yiwu of biotech look like?

Yiwu. Mind-blowing.

Anyways, Decoding the world introduces me to a fact that I had no idea about before: the US is playing a game at a Silicon Valley apps scale. China is playing a game at the cities-scale! They’re literally specializing in building new cities from scratch. They have invested $1.3 trillion in the next 7 years in 195 countries that signed up for these loans.

If you read more about the world than I do, that’s probably not shocking enough. Now let’s rephrase the fact: the US is playing with computer OS. China is playing with city OS. WHAAAT??!! Operating systems for whole cities? What does that mean?

We need to understand that Confucianism is at the core of China’s culture. My possibly limited interpretation of the book about this topic is: mind your business, don’t complain, restrict your freedom of expression. The great question here is: how will China’s city OS influence the 125 that have already opted in?

It’s no surprise that China could become the next and greatest world potency. One chapter suggests that the future will look like a 5-sided chess with climate, Artificial Intelligence, the biotech revolution, China, and the search for truth being the players, and in which China secretly controls the other 4.

Citizen’s data goes to the government and is centralized (AI), they produce 2x GHGs than the US does but they have triple solar power (climate), their laws for biotech research are different to the rest of the world’s (biotech), and their media is controlled by the state (search for truth).

In the midst of such a powerful actor, my hope again is in having a scientific mindset. This is not to say at all that China is the enemy. On the contrary, I’d love to visit the country one day and know the wonders that they’re working on in the biotech industry.

On the science of our future

Many say that we shouldn’t worry about automation and AI taking over the current jobs because new industries will create new jobs. I think it may create different and new jobs, but these may not account for the losses, and intuition tells me that lower income people will be less likely to learn about bioengineering or AI.

Then hope is then placed in the wealthy, the wealthy being stressed and employing others to do things for them. The massage guy, the yoga instructor, or the nanny seem harder to automate.

Stats show that Millennials are interesting. They go against Maslow’s pyramid, covering their wants before their needs. They also seem to be more environmentally conscious but don’t save enough, which puts them at risk in case of a healthcare emergency.

I don’t really have an opinion on this topic. I would just add that this Mackenzie report agrees with Arvind and Po’s ideas.

Then there’s Bitcoin. More than an online currency, it’s the online gold: no more than 21 million coins will ever be created, so it will be as limited as the metal in that sense.

Taking only that into account, it would make sense to invest in it. However, I don’t get the decentralized part yet. Why its price seems to be pure speculation instead of being backed by work, if that makes sense.

A global, frictionless currency is required to have a world without borders and a peaceful planet too

5. Synthetic biology

Believe it or not, biology is one of the most advanced technologies on Earth. Today, we are engineering it, we are modifying it for good. Call it biotechnology, synthetic biology, or bioengineering. It’s becoming the field that will revolutionize all industries and build a sustainable future.

Most of the time, the problem is not in nature itself, but in the process to obtain these resources. Wood is amazing, but it’s better to keep it in trees, same with meat, and with textiles.

Microbes are the rockstars in this new era of manufacturing. They can turn anything into anything, as the authors would say: some can absorb gamma radiation, generate electricity, create yogurt, bind carbon to silicon, eat minerals and excrete acids or vice-versa, emit light, create glue, breathe out metals. Most of them eat sugar but they can be reprogrammed to eat CO2, methane, or plastic.

Some amazing startups that Indiebio has supported include Clara Foods, which creates animal-free egg whites, Bucha which invented animal-free leather, Michroma which produces sustainable food dyes, and BeeFlow where they are saving bees with a fertilizer that acts as medicine as opposed to poison.

Synthetic biology is a fascinating field. I invite you to decode the world together and check out this article I wrote on 15+ companies that are growing a more sustainable future.

What if we could grow anything?

Hey! I’m S🧠FIA, an ambitious teenager developing synthetic biology projects and creating related content.
Just for growth, I also innovate at TKS🦄, participate in The BioDojo, play the piano, take photos, and 🌎 connect with new people every week (hit me up!).