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99% Invisible: On Average


In many ways, the built world was not designed for you. It was designed for the average person. Standardized tests, building codes, insurance rates, clothing sizes, The Dow Jones – all these measurements are based around the concept of an “average.”

The modern use of averages was pioneered by a Belgian mathematician and astronomer named Adolphe Quetelet. In the 1830s, astronomers were some of the only people that regularly calculated averages, since early telescopes were extremely imprecise. To obtain more accurate data for say, tracking the orbits of planets, astronomers would take multiple measurements (all of which were slightly different) add them together, then divide by the number of observations to get a better approximation of the true value. Quetelet was the first to take this tool of astronomers and apply it to people. [...]