On Keeping a (Lab) Notebook

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

I should begin by outing myself as a notebook-keeper. I use the term ‘notebook’ loosely: I write things down physically in marbled composition books titled “Life Notes” or “Things in My Head,” electronically in word documents scattered over my hard drive or in rambling, disorganized emails to friends, and sometimes mentally on metaphorical pages placed in imaginary filing cabinets. I suspect that most Swatties are notebook-keepers on one level or another.

My favorite meditation on the subject is Joan Didion’s On Keeping a Notebook:

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.

I encountered the concept of a lab notebook only in college, and I admit that I floundered at first, unsure how to approach this scientific, seemingly rigid spin on the familiar. After taking many more science courses and doing independent research, I find myself returning once more to the idea of a lab notebook.

Research notebooks allow me to embrace my affinity for excess. I write down every minute detail with the rationale that I might see a hidden pattern and discover something unexpected; photographs are even easier to justify – what’s a click and a bit of digital space? With this hyper-vigilant pattern-seeking comes a tendency toward hypochondriasis by proxy: what if my bacteria have membrane stability issues?

In an effort to further explore the concept of a lab notebook, I searched through my laboratory manuals for this semester. Liz Vallen states simply that, “[a] laboratory notebook needs to be a useful reference for you and other scientists,” while Josh Newby writes that, “[p]erfect notebooks are impossibly rare.”

I also looked to the Bio 001 favorite, A Short Guide to Writing About Biology, affectionately referred to as ‘Pechenik.’ The author describes how J.B. Collip was the first to purify insulin and would have won the Nobel Prize had he kept better notes that allowed him to repeat the experiment. Charles Darwin failed to keep detailed notes of the Galapagos finches, unaware of their significance at the time, and was only able to formulate his theory of natural selection because of specimens collected by other crew members. Pechenik takes a utilitarian, borderline fear-mongering approach, warning that, “You might not be so lucky: take notes carefully and in detail.”

Scientists can tell you exactly what to write in a lab notebook, but they often do so with a practical attitude that I accept only begrudgingly as a lifelong notebook-keeper. I prefer to look instead to literature, thinking of Jack Kerouac’s advice to be “submissive to everything, open, listening,” when making observations. Or considering Mary Gordon’s essay Putting Pen to Paper, But Not Just Any Pen to Just Any Paper, in which she notes that writing by hand, “has virtue, because of its very physicality. For one thing it involves flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper.” Most lab notebooks are physical; knowledge of the physical world passes through the realm of the technological, as complex instruments are used to glean information from an organism or a chemical reaction, but ultimately returns to the physical in the form of the lab notebook, with a beautiful circularity.

Motivations for keeping a notebook fall into three main categories: personal growth (á la Didion), for others, and practical reasons (as with Pechenik). Course labs fall into the middle group – who hasn’t written the occasional note for the amusement of a TA or professor? It’s difficult to completely escape practical concerns, but science students should look to the long literary tradition of notebook-keeping and realize they are not as constrained as they might believe. I’ve heard of people writing their lab conclusions in poetry form; though I’ve never gone quite this far, I at least try to appreciate the subtle differences between, ‘snow-like, flaky white crystals,’ and a ‘caking, cream-tinted solid.’

Collin Purrington describes the range of philosophical reasons for the lab notebook well. One might keep it “[t]o encourage sound thinking. Keeping a notebook gives you a forum to talk to yourself, to ask questions, [and] to jot down important thoughts,” because, “[o]ther or future members of the laboratory may want to repeat and extend your experimentation if you die an early death,” or, “[t]o get rich! … If you have not kept up a proper laboratory notebook, other researchers and their patent lawyers will beat you to the Patent Office and to the bank.” I recommend his web page for everyone adjusting to lab notebooks.

Upon consideration, scientists and authors are remarkably similar. Scientists research the world around us and try to describe it with theories and models, while authors explore the human condition and attempt to capture it with words. Both endeavors are extremely difficult, and I imagine both fields contain a high concentration of notebook-keepers.


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