Monday, December 10, 2012

The Notebook

Lab notebooks are important; as far as paper goes they're more important than your diploma and probably even your social security card (which you can get replaced, albeit painfully). If your lab notebook vanishes, you're in trouble. Big trouble. So naturally, we see a variety of lab notebook practices.

Gosling and McAdams express their
mutual enthusiasm for efficient , timely
laboratory recordkeeping.
Source: NewLine Cinema/Netflix.
I think notebooks of students at the beginning and end of their graduate school careers are most interesting. Beginners because they don't know what information is important or how much room they're need, so the things end up looking like a William Faulkner/James Joyce novel. Grizzled veteran students because they just don't care anymore and procedures end up super sparse, with four or five crammed on a page.

The following are, in my experience, the most common lab notebook styles:

Spiral notebook: Lazy grad student (read: cheap PI) doesn't need to buy a fancy notebook with actual gridlines or thick paper or sturdy binding. The last three quarters of that barely-used spiral notebook, from back when taking notes in spectroscopy seemed a good idea, will suffice.

  • Advantages: Cheap and convenient. If your friends see the notebook, you can avoid looking like a dork who has a lab notebook and instead say something about "YOLO", thus retaining social status. 
  • Disadvantages: If seen in lab, PI will think you are studying for class instead of running columns. Prepare for awkward talk on time management.

Hard-bound notebook: Your PI has money and/or wants to keep up appearances, so everyone's got the $3001 leather Amazon-rainforest-paper hardbound notebooks.

  • Advantages: Nerd cred. Ability to use notebook as blast shield in the event of a lab explosion. Also ability to build fort out of lab notebooks once enough labwork has been done (think of it as a reward).
  • Disadvantages: If taken outdoors, this notebook will likely be stolen by humanities majors for use as a diary/composition book. And if the notebook is lost, it's obvious and your life is meaningless.

Hard-bound notebook with carbon copy paper: Your PI is old-school but realizes that backups are pertinent given the hundreds of liters of organic solvents and pyrophoric reagents dancing around the lab space. Unfortunately, the method of backup is the 1950s method of carbon copies of your notebook, so it's a lot like being in undergrad lab again.

  • Advantages: Shouldn't lose your work.
  • Disadvantages: Will probably lose your work anyway because you leave the carbon copies in a pile next to the original notebook.

Electronic lab notebook: No fear of technology in your group. Everyone's lab notebook is on "the cloud", and that's not even the cloud of weird thiol fumes coming from that one guy's bay. Instant sharing, instant backup.

  • Advantages: Everyone (read: PI) knows what everyone else is doing and has done (or is this a disadvantage?)
  • Disadvantages: Put on gloves. Measure out alcohol. Take off gloves. Type amount of alcohol. Put on gloves. Measure out triphenyl phosphine. Take off gloves. Type amount of triphenyl phosphine. Put on gloves. Measure out carboxylic acid. Take off gloves. Type amount of carboxylic acid. Put on gloves. Dispense dry THF and precise volume of DEAD. Take off gloves. Type amount of THF and DEAD.

Kimwipes and Sharpie: It's written on the hood. Take a picture. That's good enough for SI, right?

  • Advantages: Frees up bench space for unwashed glassware.
  • Disadvantages: What do you mean, you cleaned my hood sash?? That was 3 months of work!

The miiiiiiind: Oh yeah, that experiment happened... totally ran that reaction, no, I wasn't playing Angry Birds instead, why do you ask. The yield was... uh, yeah, it was 87%... The NMR? Oh don't worry, it's already characterized in the literature.

  • Advantages: Chemistry works however you want it to.
  • Disadvantages: None.

On a serious note, why do people still use hard-bound notebooks without any sort of backup? That seems like risky business. (N.B. apparently there are companies that will digitize all your lab's records. Interesting.)

1 $300±300. I don't pay attention to these things.

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