(This material was taken from the web)
notebooks…have long been of interest to historians and philosophers of science
because of the extraordinarily direct insight they give into the way his
thinking developed…. They are also remarkable in the amount of detail that
they give about the design and setting up of experiments, interspersed with
comments about their outcome and thoughts of a more philosophical kind. All are
couched in plain language, with many vivid phrases of delightful spontaneity….
Day, ‘The Philosopher’s Tree: A Selection of Michael Faraday’s Writings’1
Writing the Laboratory Notebook
The skill of writing the
Laboratory Notebook – even the existence of such a Notebook – has probably
fallen somewhat into disuse with the advent of the photocopied worksheet. Yet it
is a vital part of industrial and academic research, and indeed can in these
activities be required in law to establish, for example, patent rights. Kanare2
offers many insights into how such rights may be protected, and I am indebted to
his book for numerous things that I had not thought of. This page offers some
hints for the revival of the Art of the Laboratory Notebook in a school or
university undergraduate setting.
It would be a brave
professional scientist, let alone teacher or student, who would take issue with
Faraday. Notebooks ‘couched in plain language, with vivid phrases….’. What
a marvellous image Peter Day conjures up. All of Faraday's notebooks exist and
remain at the Royal Institution in Albemarle St. where they were all written.
The whole point of a
laboratory notebook is that it should
exactly what was done, and when;
clear who did it;
someone else to do the same thing at some future date;
durable and verifiable.
Any rules that are used must
attend to these points; anything else is spurious. Plain language is the least
spurious of all.
Books, pens and paper are the
tools of your academic trade; skimping on them is absurd. Paper trees are a crop
– paper is not made from rainforest timber, it’s made from spruce or larch
grown for the purpose – so do not be mean with paper. (I have an interest in
paper and in writing and writing tools, and can bore for hours on this. It’ll
appear in these pages sooner or later, have no fear.)
Here are some rules for
notebooks should be hardback bound notebooks – you can stick worksheets in
must be done in ink. Black ballpoint pen is best; fountain
pen inks are not as durable as ballpen inks and are more prone to fading,
and do not withstand solvent spills as well as ballpen does. Blue ink fades
more readily than black, and red is least fade-proof of all. Some pens
contain waterproof fade-resistant inks and are made in many colours, e.g.
Mitsubishi’s Uniball Eye pens.
should not be used for anything.
Anyone should be able to pick
up your notebook and understand what you have written3.
This must be the main thing - you are writing for someone else. If the writing
is clear to them, then it certainly will be to you. Achieving this requires some
organisation as well as a certain style.
page. Give a page to state your name, address (you might lose the
book) and a brief indication of its purpose - 'Chemistry Practicals', for
of contents. Give two pages to the Contents so that you can list
the experiments and find them easily when needed. But you will need to....
the pages. Tedious but essential. Do it when the notebook is new.
of abbreviations. I use abbreviations a lot - they save time and
effort. If you use them, give a table to explain them.
each new piece of work on a fresh page. I love the sound of 'fresh
page'. A fresh page is a challenge; rise to it.
The Experimental Introduction.
The introduction to your
experimental report should have the following:
title of the experiment - and this should appear on any added pieces of
paper, graphs, whatever, that are pasted into the notebook.
statement of the problem or task - short and to the point. The elaboration
of this comes later.
date. In industry or research this is exceedingly important, and may be in
your work too. Write the date unambigously and include the year - for
example 2 July 2000 or, for purists, 2nd July 2000. Do not write 2/7/2000
since those who use the American date system will think you mean 7th
This is the part of the
account that tells what you are going to do. It may be that you have detailed
instructions already, in which case they can be written or pasted into the
notebook. If you are planning an investigation you will have to write out your
own plan. If so:
simple, direct statements or a bulleted or numbered list of instructions;
forwards to what you intend to do - do not repeat the introduction;
on any special features of the materials to be used - perhaps they require
special storage or handling, or there may be several varieties of the
compound available (hydrates or anhydrous, maybe). Such factors are very
important and must be recorded.
Part of chemical education is the instruction in handling potentially
hazardous materials safely. There are some compounds that are not permitted
in schools in the UK, mainly because they are carcinogenic or explosive.
There are still plenty of hazards around, and you should take these into
account when planning the experiment. It may affect the quantities you use,
or whether a fume cupboard is needed or not, and many other things. You need
to make a risk assessment. Standard practical exercises
will have been assessed by teachers, but this does not remove the need for
you to consider safety for your own experiments.
The observations you make and
the data that you record will lead to the acceptance or rejection of your
hypothesis, and will decide what future experiments may be done. The
observations and data are therefore central to the whole exercise.
They need to be:
as you go along, in the notebook, in ink, immediately.
not trust to memory, even for a minute or so - someone talks to you, and
that data's forgotten.
not trust to memory; you do not want your mind occupied with trivial things
and small details. You need to keep the overall experimental plan in mind.
not use odd scraps of paper or the edge of your lab coat to record data
raw data is precious - Kanare2 suggests
that the data is treated with the care you'd bestow on a family heirloom
data must be recorded as completely as is possible. Don't worry too much
about interpreting the data as you go along, and don't worry if some of the
observations appear banal. For an example of how omission of even the
simplest things can dramatically affect the outcome of an experiment, go here.
good penmanship. Take care with numbers - never over-write,
always cross out erroneous material with a single line and re-write the
use Tipp-ex or other white-out liquids.
your work out - paper is a crop, not a rarity, and you are not depleting
rainforests. It is a necessary resource for your work
must be written in vertical columns, each column being headed with the
quantity and the appropraite units
need only illustrate novel apparatus - everyone knows what a beaker looks
should ne sectional - do not draw the apparatus as you see
it on the bench
should be large enough to allow labelling
should be simple and to the point.
not computer-plot your graphs. Graph-plotting is an art, and once you have
learned it you can then decide whether to use machines, and whether the
graphs they plot are silly or useful.
graph should have the experimental title and the date written clearly
axes must be labelled with the quantity divided by its unit
error bars if you know the error limits
a clear table of the data you used to plot the graph
any calculations out clearly, showing all the steps and using units
throughout (see my calculations
your results to your hypothesis - do they support or refute it? Comparisons
must be as quantitative as possible. Of course a simple analysis practical
will only produce a result.
any ideas you have, however brief - if you don't write them down, you'll
conclusions should state
- what you found out;
- whether the
hypothesis was supported or not, if appropriate;
- the error limits on
your answer(s); a quantitative assessment of error should be made if
possible, so that you can decide whether the use of a measuring
cylinder rather than a pipette, say, really did make any meaningful
difference to the result;
- suggestions for
improvement in experimental design, if appropriate; the error
analysis will be useful here.
to do next, if appropriate.
not take place on the pages of textbooks or learned journals, but it is recorded
there. The quality of any work is only as good as the report that remembers it
when the test-tubes have long been washed up.
Peter: The Philosopher’s Tree, A Selection of Michael Faraday’s
Writings. Bristol: Institute of Physics Publishing, 1999. ISBN 0 7503 0571
Howard M: Writing the Laboratory Notebook. Washington D.C.: American
Chemical Society, 1985. ISBN 0 8412 0933 2
op. cit. p 63.