This past weekend I went down to Philly (visiting the fiancee) and ended up at the Franklin Institute. Since I grew up near Philadelphia, the Franklin is somewhere I have visited since a kid, and as a science nerd, is it a place I have always enjoyed. Although many of the exhibits have changed, there are still some of the classic displays that I hope will never go away. Some of my favorites include the lever demonstration that lets you lift ~500 lb of bricks, the giant pendulum and the machine that has the golf balls falling down a series of obstacles (I actually have no idea what this is called, or really how to describe it…but I like to just sit and watch the golf balls cycle through. And now that I have typed this, I found out it is called Newton’s Dream)
One of the great things about the Franklin is the traveling exhibits that they host. This time, it was the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit. Leonardo da Vinci is a name that everyone recognizes and I am sure most people know more about him than I do…in fact there were many small children at the exhibit who knew a lot more than I did. Since I am not really an expert, and this blog is not really about trivia, I will not go into all the crazy things that he did or even the amazing things he was able to think about. Something that did strike me (and leads me to writing this) is the way in which we know about the many things that went on inside his mind.
I am talking about his notebooks. In those notebooks, da Vinci wrote down his great thoughts on nature and science and included sketches of his ideas. According to wikipedia, he had 13,000 pages of journals with drawings and notes. These pages are on displays in museums and their contents are studied to try and get a glimpse into the mind of this great thinker. At the Franklin exhibit, some of the sketches had even been built into models that were on display.
Seeing his notebooks on display (I have also been lucky enough to see the Codex Leicester when it was on display in Ireland) and then looking at the notebooks of my fellow grad students brings me to my question…what the hell happened? Some of the notebooks I have read cannot be used 3 weeks after writing, let alone the 300 years that da Vinci’s notebooks have lasted. There seems to be something missing in science education when it comes to keeping a notebook. Even the students who are good enough to write down all the details about what they did, they seem to fail at explaining why they did it. Why did you stop adding ethanol to the reaction between this experiment and that one? Where did you get that idea to mix the reagents in that ratio? (This last one actually came up in a friends PhD defense…since this was a ratio that had been passed down through grad student generations, he didn’t have an answer)
I know that I do not keep great notebooks, and this is something that I have been working to change. I have put a special effort into training the undergrads that I supervise to keep good notebooks, and I think they are developing some good habits. After seeing first hand the amount of knowledge that a good notebook can carry in it, I will try and push myself that much harder to keep better notebooks.
…as kind of a PS, although da Vinci is the inspiration for this post, he is hardly the perfect example. He had a habit of writing backwards in his notebooks…this is not something I would suggest you do in your notebook. Please write in your notebook legibly, or you are defeating the purpose!