Welcome to The Ludicrous Lab Book.
Lab books are an old
tradition in science. When performing experiments lab books are used to
document procedures, results, chemical recipes, notes, anything that may help the scientist progress through her/his
experimental workflow. The style and content of the lab book is very
much dependent on the scientist using it and on the regulations of the
institution she/he works for. Some lab books are methodical, concise and
clear, others are more chaotic, illegible, cryptic. Mine fall into the second
My lab book (pictured here) is a chaotic mess of step-by-step instructions, post-it notes, gel images, lists and random musings. Also it's a bit incomplete as most of my analyses (and musings) are now done on computer. I generally use my lab book to write down protocols and set ups. My hand-written protocols are easier for me to follow (despite my awful handwriting) because I add little notes to myself which relate to our lab equipment or my tendency to be ditsy. E.g. One note reminds me to turn on a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) machine half an hour early because it takes that particular machine ages to reach the necessary temperature. Another note reminds me that part of an experiment I did is written up in a colleague's lab book, not in my own.
The result is a very messy and difficult to read lab
book. I pity the person given the task of going through my lab book
trying to deduce via my seemingly disjointed and random entries, my
And yet (well kept) lab books can be a great source of information for new researchers in a lab, scientists trying to replicate an experiment, science historians writing biographies and investigations into scientific misconduct.
In his book 'The Private Science of Louis Pasteur' Gerald Geison uses Pasteur's own lab books to reveal startling cases of what would now be considered gross scientific misconduct. For example Pasteur publicly claimed to have successfully tested his developed rabies vaccine on numerous dogs before delivering it to a young boy. His lab books however show that he used a competitor's vaccine on the boy, not his own. A fact he concealed from the public. Read this book review (or the book itself) for more info but please bear in mind that we can not always judge historical figures by today's standards.
Even now, Sir Alexander Fleming's lab books still offer new sources of research. Fleming, famous for his accidental discovery of Penicillium chrysogenum, a fungal species with antibacterial properties, is credited with the development of the first antibiotic, Penicillin. In 2011 a team of scientists from Imperial College swabbed Flemings lab and lab books for fungal particles and used genetic analysis to reveal that P. chrysogenum may in fact be more than one species of fungus. Their results could aid the search for new antibiotics. For those interested Fleming's lab notebooks, along with other publications, are kept at the British Library and his laboratory at St Mary's hospital is now a museum open to the public.
Lab books are central in any investigation of scientific misconduct, such as in the famous Baltimore affair
where scrutiny of lab books and data brought into question a number of
publications by Thereza Imanishi-Kari (co-authored by nobel prize winner
David Baltimore, hence the name). Whilst Imanishi-Kari was eventually
reinstated there is still debate about whether these anomalies were due
to fraud or sloppy record keeping. In another case of scientific
misconduct, known as the Schön Scandal,
request of the raw data files and experimental records by the
investigating committee revealed that Schön did not keep a lab book (a
big science no-no). Furthermore, he claimed to have deleted all raw data
from his computer due to lack of space. Schön was found guilty of misconduct, lost his job and in 2011 had his PhD revoked (even though his PhD work was not in fact fraudulent).
Lab books are also important for patent law. Scientists who work in research areas that could lead to a nice
new invention, medicine, chemical compound etc, need to show proof of the origin and date of the
invention/protocol etc when filing for a patent. Lab book entries with clear dates are generally
recommended by patent attorneys.