If you’re going to be a scientist, and you don’t have a Rain Man-like memory, you’re going to have to take notes on what you’re doing from time to time. From here, you’re probably going to fall into one of two camps: pen and paper based lab notebooks, or some kind of electronic lab notebook (ELN). (If there are any other way’s of recording your experiments, I’d love to hear them! Giant Post-It Pads?)
I have an idea that could relatively easily bridge the gap between the two methods. To just check that out, feel free to skip to the end, as this is a fairly lengthy post. If you want to hear a full breakdown, read on.
They have their pros and cons:
For pen and paper based, it’s about as simple as you can get. There’s never any user interface issues, and you can format/enter your data any which way you like. Furthermore, a physical notebook is much safer to handle around chemicals than any electronic counterpart.
However, when it comes to the “brute force” required to manage a physical notebook, it’s evident why people choose to jump ship. There’s a ton of transcribing very similar data back and forth: schemes, reactant tables, and procedures, especially when you have to go back and re-make starting materials. Furthermore, anytime you need to find physical data for a compound, you’ll need to look it up, maybe from an electronic source to begin with. When you do get that data, you’re going to have to get your calculator and quickly punch out masses, millimoles, equivalents, etc. And finally, when you’re all done with your research, you’re going to have to transcribe the whole mess into a digital format. (Unless you want to wrestle with a scanning utility that will scan written work into text, but that’s a whole new can of worms right there)…
For electronic notebooks, there’s the expected equal and opposite tradeoff. From the beginning, all of your work is ready drop into the experimental section of your publication/report/etc (maybe bar some formatting). An ELN is pretty snazzy because you’ll no longer need to whip out your calculator for quick stoichiometric calculations, and most programs offer the ability to save your newly synthesized compounds and their properties, so subsequent experimentals are that much easier! And, of course, you can copy/paste/etc reactions, so rather than write up a completely new notebook page for some minor change, some hot copy-on-paste action, followed by a quick edit to make that change will save you plenty of effort and time in the long run.
With electronic systems, theres also the interface problem. Anytime you want to enter data, you have to stop what you’re doing, de-glove, and enter the data. (Maybe you have a dedicated lab computer, but my lappy comes with me everywhere, and I’d never touch her with a dirty, gloved hand, lest my keyboard get DCMed blank, or I start bringing trace nasty compounds home with me.) If you want anything non-text based, lik a sketch a TLC plate, with pen and paper, you can just sketch the damn thing to scale if you want, and calculate Rf values later if you need to. With an ELN, you either need to calculate Rf values on the spot and enter them as text, or deal with the god-forsaken TLC tool in chemdraw. Over time, you have to deal with potential program upgrades, file incompatibilities, even making the jump to different programs, or worse, hard-drive/server failure.
Although it does have it’s downsides, I’ve really begun to embrace the idea of the electronic notebook. Once you get past the learning curve and learn workarounds to bugs/features you don’t like, things run pretty smoothly. If you simply must have that analog feel in the heat of the moment, jotting down quick notes on the back of your glove or a regular sized post-it can suffice until you have an appreciable amount of data and wish to stop and drop it all into your ELN. Yet still, a surprising majority of my colleagues are still using pen/paper based notebooks…
Anyway, the new idea: Apple has the iPad coming out. (Already, I do know my iPhone can access my web-based ELN, but I’m not using that for in-lab work…)
The iPad is built off the same OS as the phone, and with it’s full size, touchy-feely screen, and hopefully awesome/intuitive Apple engineering, it could be a highly promising platform for ELN development: Want to type things up next to your hood? Sure, there’s no physical keys to get DCMed. Want to draw out a TLC plate or apparatus setup? Physically draw the sucker out! (Who knows, maybe Apple will add a built in camera in the future. Then you can just snap a picture of it!)
I’m a bit concerned about the construction of the iPad – one wrong solvent could eat the screen, or cause the whole thing to bite the dust. (And again, despite the similarity to the iPhone, I’m not volunteering mine to find out.) However, Apple does claim that the enclosures are glass and aluminum, both of which sound decently solvent-proof, which means you can probably use it without fear while gloved up. Furthermore, even if not outright solvent-proof, perhaps it could be retrofitted easily enough.
As of right now, 500 bucks for a new lab toy seems a little unnecessary¹. All the same, it’s not necessarily the most practical now, but if it does work, it could open up the possibility for far more useful software in the future.
In the meantime, if anybody wants to send me any old, broken, or damaged iPhones or iPod Touches or whatever, I’ll gladly test their resistance to a wide variety of lab solvents/chemicals. Also, I’ll most definitely have to type up a full report and publish it here. If I’m picking up where his research left off, Dylan Styles will certainly be a primary reference. Furthermore, if anyone wants to send me a working iPad to test for their iPad-based ELN development, that would be equally appreciated. (Hopefully, this means you, Artus Labs! Please?)
1) Unless it’s a Kyle Finchsigmate approved MPLC pump…