Basic science: understanding experiments
Basic science: understanding experiments

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Basic science: understanding experiments

1.1 Keeping a study journal

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JANET SUMNER
Hazel, we're asking the learners on the science experiment course to keep a study journal. And I thought I'd ask you - as dean of science - why taking detailed written notes is good scientific practice.
HAZEL RYMER
Well the thing is it's just like the rest of life. It's really obvious that day what those measurements or observations or whatever, what they were for, what you've achieved, what happened. Next day, next week, next month, certainly next year, you have long since forgotten. And that's really why. Just so that you understand how the thought processes is and everything else worked out. What the things were that were affecting the experiment that day.
JANET SUMNER
So what kind of things do scientists write down then? What have you got in your notebooks?
HAZEL RYMER
Oh, in my notebooks.
JANET SUMNER
So this is a bit tatty.
HAZEL RYMER
Well you know, these are real field notebooks. They've got wet, they've been thrown in the mud and everything else, and they're held together with duct tape. Do you know, this is the most important piece of field equipment, is the roll of duct tape.
So the sorts of things - oops - that we would note in the book. Well, we've got phone numbers of local people that are helping us for example. Here I've got the name of a station, it's one of the places I make my measurements. And I've explained how to get there. By the can on the right of the road, two kilometres from the turning of the lake. That sort of thing.
JANET SUMNER
So with that kind of information in it, that means that you could pass this notebook on - say to one of your students - so they've got the local contacts and the locations to go to.
HAZEL RYMER
Exactly. So for field science, there's no point keeping your data hidden away in the notebook just for your own use. In some cases, other people want to go back to that precise location.
Of course these days you can use GPS, but there are other things that you need to note down. Say for example, you might be able to precisely locate a point using GPS, but you would need to know whether the measurement that you were making was up on the top of a boulder, or the bottom, or just around, or whatever it is. So you would have pictures, and you would have a detailed description. So that anybody could then come along and precisely make that same measurement.
JANET SUMNER
So apart from those kind of notes, I'm guessing most of your notebooks are full of numbers.
HAZEL RYMER
They are. They are very nerdy looking notebooks. So these are the sorts of measurements I would make.
I'd say what date it was. I'd say what the measurements were, and here are the numbers, and some other notes about them. And yes it's just numbers, numbers, numbers.
But every now and then, I've got comments such as, instruments fell over, or instrument knocked, or something like that. Because that's what happened, and that could affect the numbers that you make. And also it helps you to remember it.
Because if it's just a string of numbers, you come back next week, next year, it's just a string of numbers. But if you've said, this was where Bill fell over, you think 'Oh yeah, I remember that'. And you can remember what happened. You remember whether it was raining or whatever.
JANET SUMNER
Now it's interesting because we're both volcanologists. We both work on volcanoes. And this just shows how personal every scientist's notebooks are. Because yours are full of numbers, and mine are full of pictures.
HAZEL RYMER
Wow. I must say, yours is very pretty.
[LAUGHTER]
JANET SUMNER
Well I think it just depends on the type of research that you're doing. This is essentially a log through layers of rock. I'm quite fussy because I always have a line down one side of my notebooks. And that's where I record the sample that I've taken, next to the layer that I've taken it from. So I'm guessing that everybody's notebooks are going to be different according to the type of scientific data that you want to record.
HAZEL RYMER
Well that's absolutely right. And do you know the thing is that you can't say that's right and that's wrong or the other way around. It depends.
So long as it does the job, so long as this reminds you of- in this case-- where you collected the samples and what the strata looked like-- what types of things you were seeing-- that's doing its job. And of course, you could hand that over to anybody else. They could go to that locality, and they would be able to identify where to go and collect those same rocks. So the job is to remind you and to be able to help somebody else.
JANET SUMNER
And I guess nowadays with digital photographs, there's a tendency to people to think, well I'm not going to write it all down in this terribly painstaking way. I'm just going to take a photograph. But photos just don't work as well, do they?
HAZEL RYMER
Actually it sounds really old fashioned, but no, I don't think they do work as well. I don't think it's a case of either or, I think you can use both. But there's nothing like a field notebook actually.
Some people record things on their phone, and of course you can write onto your phone as well and do all that at the same time. And then you can email it or whatever to lots and lots of people. But there's something about writing it chronologically through the notebook like this, that does help it somehow to keep it into your mind in a better way.
JANET SUMNER
Yeah. And it's interesting because I've got one as well, that I did for my followup experiments. And I've written down the number of the experiments-- and as you say-- the date and time, and of various conditions and things. But I've got one here that says failed.
[LAUGHTER]
JANET SUMNER
But that's equally as important, isn't it?
HAZEL RYMER
Absolutely it is. A failed experiment is not a failure. So what you were expecting didn't happen, but that's just as important.
And then really, really importantly, you never cross out anything in a notebook, do you? You underline it, or you say not to use or something in your final analysis. But you've written it in the notebook, and it must stay in the notebook. That's a perfectly valid note, whether or not the data turn out to be valid.
JANET SUMNER
Now our books are pretty complicated and pretty detailed. What we're asking the learners to do is a very simple study journal. But that's of equal value, isn't it?
HAZEL RYMER
Absolutely. It's very important to note - as we've said - the time and the date, and so on, where you are, whatever. Environmental conditions. So if you were outside doing an experiment for example - and it was raining - you might get different results from if it was sunny.
All sorts of things can affect an experiment. And sometimes you don't even know what those are until you happen to have noted them all down. Then you can perhaps find variations.
And you can say, Oh actually look, the conditions here were different from this other time. And the two times that you've made those experiments might have been years apart depending on what you're doing. And you wouldn't remember that it was bright and sunny or raining or whatever, unless you'd written it down.
JANET SUMNER
You might even note down at the end the experiment, don't do this next time. Try changing so and so or something.
HAZEL RYMER
Yes. And if you've written it down, you're more likely to remember it. The other thing of course, is it might have been a failed experiment in terms of what you were trying to do at the time. But you've still got those measurements. You've still got those results.
And it might be that another time, what you were actually looking for was whatever happened this time. That you thought was a failure one time, might not actually turn out to be. Some of the fantastic results that have been observed through the history of science, have actually been apparent fail--
JANET SUMNER
People's mistakes?
HAZEL RYMER
--People's mistakes, yes. I accidentally mixed this with that, and 'Oh look what I got'.
JANET SUMNER
What we're asking the learners to do now - in keeping a study journal - could be the start of something big going forward into the future.
HAZEL RYMER
Beginning of their scientific careers
End transcript
 
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Keeping a study journal, lab notebook or field notebook is a vital skill for any scientist – beginners to the subject often underestimate their importance.

In the video, Janet Sumner and Hazel Rymer, Dean of Science at The Open University, discuss why your notes are so important. Download the activity booklet [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]  for this course, it includes everything you’ll need to make your personal notes on the experiments. If you would rather use your own journal, that’s fine – the type of record that you keep of your experiments is less important than the clarity and detail of your notes.

A good rule of thumb is that your notes should contain enough information that someone else could use them to duplicate your work, or that you could read through them years later and remind yourself of the exact procedures that you followed. It is always far better to have recorded too much information and not need it, than to not record enough and find that a vital piece of information is missing.

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