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Beautiful Scientific Field Notes Show Why Hand Drawing Is Still Necessary

Working scientists have all manner of high-tech gizmos to gather field data. But Michael Canfield argues that doing it the old-fashioned way still makes sense.

If you teleported Charles Darwin from the mid-19th century to the present day, he’d surely be awed by all the magical-looking technology we take for granted. But if you sent him out on a scientific field expedition, he might be surprised for another reason: that scientists “of the future” still heavily rely on handwritten notes scrawled on paper to record their findings. Why? Hell, we’ve got iPhones and tablets and Internet-connected uber-brains galore–why on earth are working researchers still using the same dead-tree technology that Darwin used to sketch tortoises in the Galapagos?

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Michael Canfield, scientist and author of the new book Field Notes on Science and Nature, makes a compelling case as to why that is. First off, the field notebooks–at least the ones in this book–are totally gorgeous. That alone may serve to inspire some curious young person to take up a life in the sciences: Clearly it’s not all statistics and spreadsheets. (Although I’m sure that inevitably comes into it.) There’s a human, personal soul to this kind of work that these jottings and diagrams capture: which isn’t all that surprising, given that science requires just as much creativitiy to do well as the so-called “creative” professions do.

But seriously though: In this day and age, do paper and pencil really make useful field-recording tools (especially compared to high-def video, or voice notes uploaded and auto-tagged to the cloud)? Absolutely, Canfield tells Co.Design. “It doesn’t necessarily include every scrap of data, but good scientific documentation captures the development of the thinking, methods, and even the peregrinations that go into the particular work,” he explains. In other words: Written notes are more useful to history, for establishing the meta-record of how the research was actually done, than just the data itself. It records the human creative process, the thinking behind the thinking.

What’s more, Canfield continues, paper documents can actually last longer than their digital counterparts. “If years ago you had kept field notes on an Apple 2E, where would they be now? If you keep your field notes today on an iPad 2, how easy will they be to find and access in 2030? I still have a field notebook from my great-grandfather from 1891, and I can access it even as I am writing this email.” (See also: Charles Darwin.)

Finally, a more subtle point–the tools we use to help us think actually shape our thinking, whether we notice it or not. Digital interfaces, at the moment, are much, much less flexible than paper and pencil in many ways. If you have to put data into a certain kind of input field, with a certain kind of interaction, that changes how, when, and why you do it. Do these high-tech tools “get us closer or further away from being ‘keen-eyed observers?'” Canfield asks. “That is, does a technological application lend itself to substantial observation or is it simply designed to gather data? Capturing data is not the same thing as observation. A good example of this is comparing the process of taking a digital photograph with making a sketch.” As any artist will tell you, drawing is first and foremost an exercise in looking and noticing–two skills still vital for naturalists.

But don’t dismiss Canfield as a Luddite–he’s just as much a fan of modern technology as any working scientist. But don’t write off the power of paper just yet, either. As these sketches show, the two are likely to exist peacefully for many years to come.

Click here to buy the book for $17 on Amazon.

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About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.

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