Field notes on science and nature

From the first day of my biology degree, I was told to always keep a notebook and to write down everything I do so that it could be repeated by someone else.  I was always very thorough with this as an undergraduate, and still quite thorough during my masters.  However, things have begun to slip a little during my PhD.

My research is a mix of field work, lab work and computer work.  The balance between these varies a lot throughout the year.  Some work, like soil moisture measurements, are repeated dozens of times.  Other procedures, like nutrient extractions, are only done occassionally, but in general most of my work involves repeatedly using the same methods to build up a body of data.  As a consequence, I sometimes get lazy with my notes.  There are entries that simply say ‘N additions’ or ‘worked on stats’.  These notes serve to remind me of what I’ve been working on, but anyone wanting to repeat my work would have to find the associated files with the methods for nitrogen additions on my study plots or my R code to see what I’ve actually been doing.  These are minimally informative and certainly not compelling reading.

This isn’t something I had worried about for the last year as it seems unlikely anyone would ever look at my field/lab books besides me and the details are all available somewhere, even if it might take a little searching.  However, over Christmas I read a book entitled Field Notes on Science and Nature, editted by Michael Canfield.  It’s a really interesting read, with chapters on note-taking, list-making, recording and drawing by ecologists, anthropologists and other field researchers.  There are a lot of entertaining anecdotes and good arguments in the technology vs. notebook debate, but the messages that stuck most with me were that you’ll forget a lot more than you think you will and that things you didn’t think were important at the time can later be essential for understanding your findings or developing new research questions.

I obviously can’t be sure what details I am likely to forget that could be important for later analysis, but it’s a good reminder that spending a few extra minutes writing down the details may save me time later on.  So, I have been trying to take better notes while I am doing things, and have great plans to record more of the animals I see at the study site and other observations that might be interesting later on, even if they aren’t exactly relevant to what I’m doing at the moment.  I’ve also begun a more informal journal of work and personal experiences – the first I’ve had since I gave up on those cringe-worthy teenage offerings!  That is going surprisingly well, with an entry for every day so far this year.  I can’t promise it will lead to any great scientific revelations, but at least it means I’m taking a few minutes every day to think about what I’ve seen and done.

The other good thing to come from reading this book is that it encouraged me to look through my old notebooks from my undergraduate studies, and I found some amusing entries that I had completely forgotten about!  The photos below show excerpts from notes taken while watching fence lizards for a day, the first time I tried any sort of animal behaviour note-taking.  As well as reminding me a fun day in the field, re-reading these also raised some interesting questions.  For example, there are several notes from later that day stating that the lizards licked the ground.  What is that about?  I can think of a few hypotheses, and maybe I once knew the definitive answer, but now I can’t be sure and will have look it up to find out.

If you are a scientist, naturalist, or just an interested observer of the world around you, I recommend reading Field Notes on Science and Nature.  It is entertaining and interesting in its own right, and may encourage more of us to reflect on our observations and improve our records for ourselves and for the benefit of those who come after us.

notebook1 notebook2










I fear that as we move further into the computer age we will similarly lose the detailed historical record that field books once provided.  Sadly, the personalities of botanists will also be lost, for such musing as might be found in a field book are often telling to those wishing to know more of the past.  James Reveal, p 200.

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1 Response to Field notes on science and nature

  1. Isaac says:

    I really enjoyed this book. Thanks for sharing your story.

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