Good Natural History Reads: Field Notes on Science and Nature

With the weather getting chilly, I’ve been spending the weekends at my favorite coffee shop reading all of the papers and books that have piled up over the semester. This week I wanted to share my thoughts on a book relevant to those interested in natural history called Field Notes on Science and Nature, edited by Michael Canfield. This book has been a popular read in our lab (Andy first discovered it back in June!)

The foreword to the book is written by E. O. Wilson, who asserts that “the wellspring of the new biology is scientific natural history”. Since so little is known about the natural world, a huge rate of discoveries occur when scientists venture into the field to make observations. To ensure that these discoveries make it out of field and into the greater scientific community, it is essential to take good notes that capture as much of what was observed in the field as possible.

Each chapter of the book is written by a different author and discusses a different aspect of keeping field notes, from how to record observations to what kind of pen and paper should be used. Along with sharing their own personal methods of taking notes, the authors give sage bits of advice for those pursuing the life sciences. George Schaller warns in the first chapter that when you collect data on how far an animal has traveled or how many leaves it ate, you are only compiling fragments of that animal, not capturing the animal in its entirety. I think this is something to keep in mind, especially as research in the life sciences seems to become more and more disconnected from the natural world that inspired it.

The rolling green fields of Utah. Photo by Carolyn Trietsch (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

One of my favorite chapters in the book was written by Anna K. Behrensmeyer, a paleontologist who can speak of the importance of using fragments as windows as to what happened in the past. She says that when taking notes, it is important to keep in mind that people years from now might be studying them to find out what you did. Thus, you should write your notes for them, not just for yourself.

Overall, the book is full of useful tips for researchers working in the field. I compiled some of the best pieces of advice from the book below:

  • Take notes immediately! If you don’t record what you observed as soon as you can, you’ll likely forget it, and then it will be as if it never happened.
  • Write everything down! You never know what might or might not be needed later on. Even if you don’t think something is important at the time, you might look through your field notes later and realize just how significant it is.
  • Input data and transcribe handwritten field notes right away. Not only will this give you back-ups of your notes, but you can also fix any mistakes right away, instead of looking back months later and trying to figure out what happened.
  • Use both quantitative and qualitative data in your studies. Focusing on just one aspect means that you can lose sight of what you are studying, considering only fragments instead of the whole.
  • Don’t just rely on one kind of data collection method. Take notes, snap pictures, draw maps, write lists; try all different kinds of approaches and see what works best for you.
  • Use drawings in your field notes. While taking a picture is easier, sketching causes you to pay more attention to detail and notice aspects of it that you would have missed otherwise. Drawing can help you interpret what you are looking at and help you see things in a new way.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of lists, especially if you are working with highly visible organisms like dragonflies and butterflies. It is valuable to keep a separate list of all of the species you saw that day, or what species you saw in an area. For citizen science approaches, you can use this data to compile a checklist of species to watch for. Many discoveries with birds have been made by amateurs and not by professionals.
  • Be careful to record facts and direct observations. Distinguish these from your interpretations of what you are seeing. Clearly note them or separate them- you don’t want to cloud your facts with opinions.

An overall theme of the book is “don’t seek out things just because they are scientific; seek them out because you enjoy them, and in doing so, this will often lead you to make scientific discoveries”. Observing nature is a good way to get fresh scientific ideas, as well as reconnect and see the world for what it really is- not just a string of data points on a computer screen, but a chaotic, wonderful mess.

I still have a lot of books to tackle before I can see the surface of my desk again, but as I keep reading I’ll try to post reviews of more good natural history-related books that are worth checking out.

There are always more books to read. Photo by Carolyn Trietsch (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

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