What is your relationship with your research notebook?

By Grant Jacobs 11/06/2010 9

A rambling look at notebooks, with unexpected sidelines.

Scientist and novelist Jennifer Rohn, who writes the Mind the Gap blog at Nature Network, recently presented a photo-essay chronicling the life and death of a research project, In which I fail. As usually happens Jennifer’s post started a lively discussion that wound it’s way past swear words, a wish for a waterproof autoclavable upgrade to the iPad and scientists’ notebooks.

One of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous notebooks. (Source: The Creative Science Centre, University of Sussex, UK.)

Scientists have intimate relationships with their notebooks.

They track their working lives and, for better scientists, live on after them.

The old notebooks of famous scientists are collector’s items and informal historical works, like Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks that I have illustrated this article with.

For the rest of us, they serve more modest, but still important, roles.

Another commenter writing at In which I fail Erika Cule – raised the subject of preferring paper notebooks over computer-based ones saying that she, like me, preferred the paper kind finding it ’useful for formulating thoughts and things.’ In reply to her, Jennifer wrote:

I’m not sure I could ever keep an electronic notebook. My thoughts ebb and flow better when I use a pen in the lab. Oddly, when I write fiction the computer is essential. I never claimed I was internally consistent though! […]

Like me, Jennifer carries her notebook with her wherever she goes. Some people dictate things; we scribble instead.

Do you find writing catch-phrases remind you of lyrics? ’Wherever she goes’ … wherever you go… For Crowded House fans, Take the Weather With You (’always take the weather with you, wherever you go …’), doesn’t have the same ring to it if ‘weather’ is replaced with ‘notebook’.

It just doesn’t.

I’ve tried.

But, apropos of nothing, here’s the original:

Ahhh. Those long lazy, hazy summers. Where’d they go?

Anyway, getting back to those notebooks…

It was interesting to read that others prefer a paper and pen notebook, even if they used computers for other writing, and they used their notebooks differently to me.

I wrote mostly ideas in mine, including what I think of others’ conclusions to their work. I sometimes say very pointedly what I think of others’ work! (My admonitions are safe. I’m the only one who gets to read them.)

It’s a mix of a log of explorations of research papers, the ideas the occurred while reading these and at other random times, combined with occasional reminders and other things that haven’t much to do with work.

(’Views of a foetus in the womb’ c1510-1512, Loenardo da Vinci. Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
(’Views of a foetus in the womb’ c1510-1512, from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Over the years I’ve settled on 3B1-format staple-bound notebooks that are sold cheaply at the start of each high school year. At one time I tried more solidly bound books but being a left-hander who, like President Barack Obama, writes with a ’hook’ I find them too difficult, at least when I’m away from a writing desk.

Some of you might suggest I should write as Leonardo did, in mirror-writing. I did for a short while as a kid. Like a lot of kids, Leonardo’s inexhaustible curiosity, drawings and paintings were inspiring. Art was my thing then; science came later. A few of my French essays were handed in written in mirror-writing. The teacher never remarked about it, he just marked them. (It must have been a pain in the neck. I guess he held them up to a mirror.)

If things Leonardo interest you, visit Universal Leonardo. It’s a beautifully-made site. Don’t forget to roll your mouse over the dots on the time-line at the top of the page. There’s a lot of content behind that clever display. I arrived there via an old article about Leonardo’s notebooks on Jessica Palmer’s bioEphemera (which is now on furlough). In it, Jessica writes:

Leonardo’s notebooks always give me the impression of a vast, benevolent curiosity. This man was into absolutely everything, […]

When you look at his scrawl of notes and drawings crowded into each other, the man seems to have been an insatiable recorder of and speculator upon things.

(Machine for grinding convex lenses. Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
(Machine for grinding convex lenses. Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

I doubt many today could have his breath of interests, there is so much depth in each niche area today, but with a tiny piece of the same spirit I like the idea of noting things from other lines of research that might connect elsewhere. My notebooks let me jot down possible connections.

When I’m faced with writing a grant application, I turn to my notebooks and review what I’ve written. Many ideas look like discarded tumbleweeds in hindsight, but a few stick around and grow roots. I try base my applications on these.

The notebooks serve as a barometer of my thinking. I don’t have as much success as I’d like with grant applications (at least in this country) but it’s reassuring, if frustrating, to see many of my older ideas eventually turn up in similar form in solid publications by good labs elsewhere.

One thing I like about the paper notebooks is the ease I can take them with me. A notebook computer is much bigger, heavier, and I’d have to worry about the batteries. Much easier to just carry a pen and a compact notebook. Also, I can scribble drawings in them or connect arrows pointing to other things.

My brother makes outdoor clothing for a living. Some of the garments have what out of town would be map pockets. In town they carry my notebooks, reminiscent of how old-style journalists and private investigators draw their flip-style pads from inside their jacket. Modern top-layer garments seem to rarely have inside breast pockets, which must say something about the times?

Readers, how do you use your notebooks? What do you write in them? Do you prefer computer-based notebooks over paper ones? Do you take it everywhere with you?

What is your relationship with your notebook?


A thought that occurred to me since reading of others preference for paper notebooks over electronic alternatives is that perhaps something that could be used a graphics tablet might be an alternative. You’d be able to scribble those little idea diagrams people do when they’re trying to organise something, and sketches too. It’d want to be light and smaller than an iPad – something close enough in size to a paper notebook to be really portable – but still readable to longer texts, which might be a bit of a challenge.


24th May 2011: Scibling Marcus Wilson has written The science logbook, worth reading if this theme interests you.

Other articles at Code for life:

Book sales, frumpy readers, and mental rotation of book titles

Monkey business, or is my uncle also my Dad?

Deleting a gene can turn an ovary into a testis in adult mammals

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are ’natural’

You can change the ideas, but not the data

9 Responses to “What is your relationship with your research notebook?”

  • Lefthandedness: For any writing book that is annoying for a lefthander, simply open the back cover and start writing there, working you way from the back to the front of the book.
    I write mirror image for most things. Even got permission to do uni exams in mirror image! Much neater writing than the ‘right’ way around.

  • This had slipped my attention ’till now. If I’m honest, My relationship with my notebooks is pathological.

    I used to always write notes with those top-bound pads, but found I ended up losing the sheets and generally couldn’t organise them so they became write only files (which isn’t actually that bad, just organising someone else’s thoughts into you words helps you deal with them)

    Now I use A5 notebooks. At the moment I have four of them on the go, each dedicated to particular topic.

    I filled one up the other day, and spend really too long looking for a replacement. Everyone wanted to sell me ruled notebooks, but I’m a very visual person and I fill my notes up with diagrams and mind maps and all manner of scribbles so I don’t like being told where to write. In the end I found some nice cheap ones at one of those big-box stores down by the Chinese gardens. And I was happy.

    You know, I think just admitting that I have this notebook problem might be the first step to being cured…

  • You know, I think just admitting that I have this notebook problem might be the first step to being cured…

    Ah, you’ll never be cured of that :-)

    It’s like those bookworms that complain that they have a small library of their own…

    I used A5 notebooks with different topics in different books at one point too, but I found in the end that I preferred just one small thing that I could carry everywhere with me. I just put the ‘topic’ on the top of each entry; it’s easy enough to flick through and find them.

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