Can’t Find Your Notes? Laboratory Notebook Systems Are Built on Storage, Not Retrieval


laboratory notebook
Isaac Newton made an observation regarding tree botany 200 years ago, and he was right! Why did it take us so long to find his notes?
Image Source: LadyofHats via Wikimedia Commons

It’s tax season again and I am working on gathering together all of the tax-related documents I filed in my home office throughout the year. The only problem is that when I created my filing system, I built it based on storage, not retrieval.

The laboratory notebook is another system that is built on the idea of storage rather than retrieval. Notes of all types are recorded and saved into the notebook. However, retrieving saved information can be tedious and difficult since it involves combing through numerous pages. Sometimes, the effort is too great and many just don’t bother, rendering that information pretty useless.

There is significant risk associated with a system that cannot efficiently retrieve information when it is needed. The biggest risk is that something lost or forgotten could be extremely helpful elsewhere. In my case with the tax documents, it might be an expense that should be deducted. For the laboratory scientist, it might be something far more important that could help lead to a discovery.

This is exactly what happened with an observation that Sir Isaac Newton made in his laboratory notebook back in 1660. While at Trinity College studying mathematics, Newton kept a laboratory notebook in which he recorded notes and observations about world around him. One of the notes that he recorded was an early explanation on how trees and plants apparently defy gravity by pulling water and nutrients from the ground and up into the tree.

At the time, everyone believed that liquid only flowed downward. For example, water fell from the sky and came down from hills, but it did not go in reverse. The one exception to this was how trees managed to move water and nutrients upward from the ground.

In his notebook, Newton theorized that leaves consist of pores full of water. When the sunlight hits the water, it pushes the particles out, allowing the tree to move more water and nutrients up through the tree.

Newton’s theory was an early explanation regarding evaporation, but here is the catch: since he recorded this information in his laboratory notebook, nobody knew about it until just last year when research team reading Newton’s notebooks discovered it! The result of this missing observation was that botanists did not uncover how plants processed water and nutrients until 1895, nearly 200 years after Newton recorded the rudimentary idea in his journal! It was essentially lost. Laboratory notebooks present a flawed system in which information is swallowed up among other notes and become too difficult to retrieve.

In contrast to Newton’s filing system (and my own), an electronic laboratory notebook is designed to help scientists with both storage and retrieval. When notes are recorded, they become indexed and, therefore, searchable. This allows scientists to quickly locate information about certain ideas or notes they might need to arrive at a conclusion.

In addition, electronic laboratory notebooks are also designed to allow researchers to link text or meta descriptions with pictures, videos and sound bites, so that these can be indexed and recalled through search as well. This allows researchers to discover all sorts of relevant information, regardless of data type, in a short amount of time.

Had Newton’s ideas been available to more people sooner, we might have been 200 years further ahead in our understanding of the operations of plants. However, because he did not have access to an electronic laboratory notebook, his observation was lost for quite some time.

Let’s stop building filing systems that are based on storage, and focus instead on filing systems that can efficiently store and retrieve. Electronic laboratory notebooks provide systems that are infinitely more effective at rendering information more available, and, therefore, usable, than their paper counterparts. For more information regarding the BIOVIA Notebook, please visit our website today.

4 thoughts on “Can’t Find Your Notes? Laboratory Notebook Systems Are Built on Storage, Not Retrieval

  1. This is a good idea. It is very difficult for me to retrieve information and I have never really taken the time to consider why.

  2. This is actually incredibly true, at least it is for me. Of all the notebooks I’ve kept in my life, I have rarely ever referred to them unless I really had no other choice and even then it is a horrible pain flipping through so much extraneous information to find the piece of information I need. Often I know I’ve repeated research because it’s faster to just look something up again than to find it in a notebook. When I have something in a searchable, digital format, I actually use it and don’t end up repeating work.

  3. We completely agree! That’s why it best to have a reliable system in place to address retrieval.

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