I’m afraid to say it out loud, but my lab notebook just isn’t up to the job anymore. Last time I talked about how difficult it is to display some forms of modern experimental data in a readily comprehensible fashion. But that’s not the only problem I’m having these days. Documenting my work in the trusty notebook is also growing more futile: most of my data consists of monster spreadsheets and terabytes of images and videos. I know journals have overcome this problem by exploiting online publication and supplementary data, and labs, by creating vast storage databases on their websites. But gone, for me, at the personal level, is the ability to record everything that I am doing with a pen, on paper.
This state of affairs is particularly distressing for someone of my temperament. In an older post, I explained how I am a compulsive documenter when it comes to my experiments: no piece of film, for example, is blank enough to escape my scissors and tape; no failed PCR gel is too smeary and inconclusive. I like, in short, to record every detail from triumphant eureka to notorious bellyflop, including scribbles, images, graphs and charts, snippets of email printouts from collaborators – more like a geeky scrapbook than the sort of documents a patent judge might want to subpoena.
Now, my attempts at summary grow increasingly half-hearted – most of my book is just an index, pointing to a series of files on DVD and a growing family of external hard-drives. Given the fragmented nature of the narrative, even I have problems following the logic of my activities some days. Worse, I don’t really trust DVDs and hard-drives; I’ve had enough of these spontaneously corrupt to know that I can’t rely on their permanence.
But then, it was ever thus: the ways and means of science have been briskly evolving since I entered the research game back in the late 1980s. My year in graduate school was the last group of students to paste photographs directly into their Ph.D. theses; flipping through it now, I marvel as the pages fan by, weighed down by Kodak paper and glue. I recall, too, the stab of jealousy I felt when the next year’s crop of students showed off their magna opera, all images neatly scanned and incorporated into the document. I’ve seen the conversion from slides to PowerPoint, and the PowerPoint fads come and go: yellow text on a fading gradient of dark blue; cheesy animation transitions; that entire grim year when Comic Sans was the only font you ever saw at American conferences.
Things change, and I’m going to have to learn to live with my stripped down, new-age lab journal. But I do confess, I won’t be able to love it quite as much as before.