Field of Science

Recording science

Bruce Gibb mused in a Thesis column in Nature Chemistry a few months back about taking small chunks of time to tune up your research apparatus. I'm on sabbatical leave this semester, and in addition to the research projects I've got going, I'm trying to devote some time on a regular basis to just this. I'm playing with an simple animation app, that would let me quickly put together animations for research talks or classes — and test driving apps for electronic research notebooks.

As a computational chemist, I've been balanced on the knife edge of digital record keeping my whole career. What goes into paper archives (hand kept, or printed), what stays electronic? Who backs stuff up, how often? Long term storage? I've encourage my students to think about how they want to track their data and, at least as importantly, their thinking about their data. Through it all (from punch cards to mag tape to memory sticks) I've always kept at least some of my work on real paper, in a traditional hardbound notebook. In ink. Dated. You know the drill.

I've been reluctant to let go of pen and paper. Just as I still outline just about any piece of writing, including this one, on real paper, I find I think differently off the keyboard. Keyboards tend to enforce a certain linearity of thinking, while a sheet of paper (or several and lots of stickies) lets me move into multiple dimensions, with fewer restrictions on insertions and more flexibility in formatting.

The work I'm doing now in the archives is facilitated by having photos of what I'm reading, many of the bound copies are too fragile to routinely scan or photocopy. Ironically, reading 19th century journals has catapulted me into the 21st century as far as my own record keeping is concerned. I'm using an integrated notebook app on my iPad which allows me to scribble and sketch by hand, take and incorporate photos (and mark them up if I wish), and input text from the keyboard. Finally, I can tag pages, and filter the notebook by tags (more consistent than my own hand written indexing procedures). The only thing I don't care for is that I can't write as small as I wish, making it harder to get an overall view of where I'm going. It's an experiment still,

Today's Nature [Nature 481, 410(2012)] has an editorial and an analysis piece on digital record keeping in science. One scientist notes that paper has nothing to offer her - she's gone entirely to her iPad. I may be right behind.

1 comment:

  1. I love new tech and input devices and have several, but I don't think I'll ever completely get rid of paper either. The tactile feel of paper, especially when a pen or pencil flow across it (with very different feels to each of them, and to different types of pens as well) tends to let my ideas flow as well. Whether I'm sketching out an analysis, trying to design an assay, or just writing on various topics, I still like the feeling of paper.


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