STEM Education Poetry

Noting It Well

“Keeping a notebook:
Lab bibliotherapy;
Data, procedure in
Tome here are stored.
Calcs and reagents and
The table of contents, 
Their order records.”

The 2 November 2020 Twitter poem described one of the most ubiquitous tasks that a chemistry student or chemist completes: keeping a lab notebook.  

“Keeping a notebook: /
Lab bibliotherapy; /
Data, procedure in /
Tome here are stored…”

In the interdisciplinary seminar I’ve described previously, we discuss types of disciplinary documentation.  We read Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” and examine similarities and differences between her observational record and the lab notebooks that many of the science students are assigned.    

One observation that arises quickly is the audience of a writer’s notebook versus a chemist’s notebook.  Didion writes daily observations in contemplating her own life: “[T]he point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking…  Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.”  

In contrast, students are often familiar with my general exhortation: “Make sure your notebook is detailed enough that another chemist could pick it up and repeat your experiment!”  STEM lab notebooks follow systematic formats; “data [and] procedure” must be carefully recorded, using notation that other scientists understand.  

“Calcs and reagents and /
Instrumentation: /
The table of contents, /
Their order records.”

Other required notebook elements include materials (reagents) used in an experiment, sample calculations, and specific instrumental details; as an academic term proceeds, a running table of contents is updated.

The image on this website’s homepage is a photograph of pages from my great-grandfather’s now-century-old lab notebook.  (Someday soon, that notebook deserves an essay of its own; the phrase “keeping a notebook,” of course, has multiple resonances.)  Noting the theme of this poem, specifically, I demonstrate how consistent these main goals have been for students and scientists across the years, using the historical document as a reference in the course.