Making observations with a Nobel laureate and four-year-old cartoon characters

In my previous life as a university professor, I taught a third-year analytical chemistry class. The Academic Calendar’s description of this course stated that the course dealt with

Instrumental design and the analytical application of UV/visible, atomic, and infrared absorption spectrometers, Raman spectrometers, and fluorimeters. Included are sample preparation, data analysis, and method optimization.

There were 18 students in this course, almost all chemistry majors who had some interest in learning the material. This was a highly enjoyable course for me, as it allowed me to explore quantitative analysis, with spectrometry and a smattering of chemometrics. The class certainly had bright students, but they had one general bad habit that got on my nerves – poor note-taking in the laboratory.

Analytical chemistry, by its nature, requires the meticulous recording of data. Even the simplest experiments require weighing samples and/or solutes in the preparation of stock solutions, and measuring various parameters.  In this course, every laboratory experiment involved the use of an instrument, and along with the instrumental measurements, I asked them to record the settings, and any calibration or quality control steps. I always tell students to note anything that seems interesting or unusual (of course, when you do an experiment for the first time, some oddities will not be apparent). Even noting the colours or the relative intensity of the colours of the solutions can provide some evidence when the final conclusions are not as expected. Any deviations from the written protocol, even if they were told to do so, were to be clearly noted in their lab book. If the instrument was struck, an incorrect button was hit, a wire had to be reattached, or the computer crashed, these accidents could explain problematic results.

Some students would not bother writing down some observations, insisting that they’d remember what happened, which is never a good idea. You will forget it – it takes but a moment to write it down, and then you don’t have to remember it! A few students wrote observations on their hands, particularly to record weighings – because that is much more efficient than writing in your book (?) There were some who feared being penalized if they admitted a mistake, but in fact, the extra notes could help uncover why they were not getting expected results.

I was trying to get it into their heads that the lab books should contain more than just the raw data, but all observations that came in the lab. It was getting a bit frustrating, because they weren’t getting the point. So in the middle of the semester, I took half of one lecture and showed them two things.

One exposé was a bit silly.  The previous weekend, my wife and I spent a night with a family.  Their then-three-year-old girl was watching this episode of Sid The Science Kid:

The students in Sid’s class are taught to “observe, compare, contrast”.  They were investigating the differences between a fresh pumpkin and a decayed pumpkin.  What are some differences?  Some observations may seem quite obvious or trivial – yes, a decayed pumpkin smells gross – but the important thing is to describe as much as possible, to have them written in case you need to need to refer to it in the future.  Don’t leave anything to memory – write it all down. Can you identify the gross smell?  Can you describe the colour and texture?  Are there patterns in the discolourations?   Is the decay as apparent on the inside as the outside?  Sid even used his observations of the decayed pumpkin to predict what his banana would look like if it was left out longer.

I showed my students this video, which they found it cute and entertaining. I did my half-serious shaming of them, pointing out that even four-year-old cartoon characters were making detailed observations.  However, I wanted to link this to some serious chemistry research.

My other exposé was a sampling from Linus Pauling’s notebooks. Pauling won the 1954 Nobel Prize in chemistry for “his research into the nature of the chemical bond and its application to the elucidation of the structure of complex substances”.  He contributed greatly to our understanding of the structure of the atomic nucleus, DNA, enzymatic reactions, sickle cell anemia, and vitamin C. He was also awarded the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize, as a man who “ever since 1946 had campaigned ceaselessly, not only against nuclear weapons tests, not only against the spread of these armaments, not only against their very use, but against all warfare as a means of solving international conflicts.”  His research notebooks are preserved at Oregon State University, and are available online. Peering through these books, one can see that he made constant use of his notebooks to record experimental observations, data, calculations, ideas, manuscript drafts, and other notes in his life.  He worked out the problems from his classic textbook College Chemistry, and his notes and correspondence from a 1958 appearance on Meet The Press took out an entire notebook.  He wrote autobiographical notes, and even wrote about his wife Ava’s cancer.  His ideas on superconductivity and the shape of the alpha-helix were noted in my class.  Pauling crossed out any notes that he realized was incorrect, but never ripped out the pages or erased any data.  You never know when you are mistaken in thinking you made a mistake.

As I projected these pages onto the screen, I singled out one page from his 31st book (shown below), recorded on December 6, 1970.  The right and bottom parts of the page gave some observations in measuring the magnetic moments of phosphorous-31.  The top left part of the page details his ongoing cold, with the doses of ascorbic acid he consumed, and various observations about his aches, flatulence and the colour of his feces.  That may seem like extreme TMI, but his research on the efficacy of vitamin C required him to take meticulous notes.  Any conclusions that he would draw should be based on observations taken at the moment, since he knew that trying to remember what happened in the past would be fuzzy at best, and likely would lead to a biased recall.

I can assure you that I’ve never tracked a cold with this detail.

This made a genuine point, as I showed my students how a Nobel laureate and one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century kept his records of laboratory work.  Meticulous recording of observations and data is the best way to draw solid conclusions which are not obvious at a first glance, troubleshoot problems, and plan the next series of experiments.  This can only be good for the scientist, whether it helps them get a better mark on a laboratory exercise or make a Nobel-worthy discovery.


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