by Shane L. Larson
Have you ever had an awesome thought, maybe on your commute to work, standing in line at the grocery store, or waiting for your kids to get out of ballet? Did you say to yourself, “I’ve got to remember that! I should write that down.” Then fast-forward to later that day, and you can’t remember what your brilliant thought was?
Our thoughts are ephemeral things; they come and go like the morning dew. Committing them to long term memory requires concerted effort, which if neglected, sees the thoughts evaporate away, lost forever. Fortunately, humans have invented a device to preserve our fleeting meanderings of mind: paper.Paper is very often the central medium in creative endeavours like art and science. Paper is used by creative minds to explore their craft and store their musings for the future. One of my favorite examples is the earliest known sketch by Leonardo da Vinci himself. “Study of a Tuscan Landscape” was a sketch made in 1473 of the Arno Valley. Ink sketched on a piece of vellum, just 15cm x 22cm. Made more than 570 years ago, it deftly captures the master’s keen eye for looking differently at the world. His mind was exploring perspective and a view from on high, his pen capturing the meander of the Arno River and the hulking walls of Castle Montelupo. His interest and observations would continue, and just more than 25 years later would produce another stunning piece, “Bird’s Eye View of a Landscape”, his rendition of what he might see if he could soar over the Tuscan landscape with the birds. Another favorite record of mine is one of Galileo’s early sketches of the moons of Jupiter. When he first turned his telescope to the sky, Galileo was faced with many visions of the Cosmos that had been previously unimagined. Among these was the discovery that Jupiter had its own system of moons. This was no sudden and easy realization — when he first saw them he thought they were stars that just happened to be near Jupiter. But over time Galileo saw them trail along with the planet. He embarked on a concerted and ongoing series of observations that when linked together revealed the truth: the little lights were moving around Jupiter. This was no easy feat! From Earth, the orbits of the Galilean moons are, more or less, edge-on. We don’t see them tracing out little circles on the sky — instead we see them slowly moving left to right along a line. The innermost and fleetest of the moons, Io, takes 1 day and 18 hours to make a complete circuit. The outermost moon, Callisto, shuffles along at a slower pace, retracing its steps every 16 and a half days. To ferret out these patterns requires an organized effort. If you simply watch Jupiter through a telescope multiple times, you will see the moons move, even over the course of an evening. That is exactly what Galileo did, and each time he peered through the eyepiece, he sketched what he saw. The sketches presented in Sidereus Nuncius (Galileo’s book, that announced his discoveries to the world) are very clean and organized, and familiar to astronomy enthusiasts. But I think some of Galileo’s original notes are more interesting, because they capture a very human side of the endeavour. My favorite is now in the collection of the Morgan Library. This is a record of Galileo’s observations of the Moons of Jupiter in January of 1611, when he was trying to work out how long it took each moon to circle the planet. The beauty of this is the scrap of paper is an unfolded envelope. I imagine Galileo peering through his telescope, and on the spur of the moment deciding to watch over several days to work out the orbits, so he grabbed what he had at hand. The next night, having fully intended to record it in his proper notes, he used the same scrap of paper because time had gotten away from him that day when he met an old friend at the market. And so on — it’s the way science goes, constantly intermingling itself with everyday life. I love this old envelope — it gives new meaning to the old adage of doing science “on the back of an envelope.”
Though-out history, paper has been the medium by which we preserve knowledge. It has evolved into a fine art-form in the production of books, which harbor the collective memory of our species. But the mass production and archiving of knowledge on paper in libraries, universities, and bookstores has a much more personal face at the level of individual people: their notebooks.
Notebooks are, quite often, as personal to people as the shoes or t-shirts they choose to wear. Some people swear by spiral bound notebooks (often adorned with pictures of kittens or flaming electric guitars) that you remember from grade school; others have moved on to composition books. Artists often have sketchbooks or watercolor books. Others swear by cahiers of the Moleskine style, or by tiny pocket notebooks they can keep in their pocket next to their smartphone.I have many notebooks lives. My scientific life is contained in my research notebooks. These are an ever increasing number of 3-ring binders, with loose-leaf pages within. This includes my own musings and calculations, graphs, articles I have read, print-outs of code, and pictures of my whiteboard. My amateur astronomy life is captured in a series of paired notebooks — one set are my astronomical diary, capturing the times I was out, who I was with, the weather where I was, the telescopes I used, and what I saw those nights. I also have a sketchbook where I try to make some kind of sketch of everything I see. They aren’t great, but they are a record of what I saw, of what I noticed. But my constant companion, which my friends will recognize, is my idea notebook. I carry it with me everywhere. I use 5” x 8.25” hardback journals like Moleskines or Insights. I strongly prefer blank pages, but I’m often using lined journals because I’m a sucker for “special edition” journals, connected to pop culture elements, like superheores or famous novels. I like this size because it is small enough to carry around, but is also large enough to have some space to work. I almost always have it in one of several treasured covers from Oberon Design. I put everything in my idea journal — sketches and Zentangles, calculations and research ideas, travel notes, movie ticket stubs, diary entries about cloud formations, notions for Lego models, ideas for posts here at writescience — anything I might not want to forget. It all goes there, so I don’t forget it. The funny thing about memory is the act of committing it to paper means I often remember what I was thinking later, even without looking it up!
The #AdlerWall implores you to write down what you see — so you can remember, and so you can relate your experiences to someone else, even if that someone is only a future version of yourself. Try slipping a small notebook in your pocket, and make little jots down in it as you explore the suggestions on the #AdlerWall.
But be warned: sometimes, when faced with a new, empty notebook, with pristine pages unsullied by pen or pencil, it is hard to write that first thing. This is Fear of Ruining the Notebook. Not everyone suffers this phobia, but I have it in spades, as do many others. So to combat it, I have developed a strategy: I have a standard ritual I start with every notebook, initially marking and adorning some pages. This uniquely identifies every notebook as mine, and it gets me past those first panicky moments when faced with pure, blank pages. The ritual goes like this:
- Inside the front, on the leaf connected to the front end-page, I write my name and email address — there is often a place for this.
- On the bottom of that page, I usually put a sticker of… something. NASA missions, national park stickers, anything I happen to have.
- On the inside end paper, along the seam, I write my name in black sharpie, as well as a glyph I made up in my youth to mean “me”
- On the other side of the end leaf, facing the first true page of the notebook, I put a portrait painting of Carl Sagan, with the opening paragraph of Cosmos.
- On the first page of the notebook, I write some kind of stylized intro graphic that says, “New Moleskine.”
I don’t know WHY I do all these things; I probably don’t need to do them all, but I do. If I were superstitious, I would say it would be bad luck to NOT do these things. But irrespective, it breaks in the new notebook and I can start using it!If you are following along and doing the #AdlerWall project, you will likely find you need a way to capture what you see in the world around you. We of course live in the future — your smartphone can capture what you see in pictures, or voice memos, or electronic text.
But you may find something comforting and liberating in using paper to record your journey. Anything can work, as Galileo’s unfolded envelope shows. But just in case you think its too embarrassing to show people your bird sketch on the back of a lunch napkin, or you’re afraid you’ll lose the sunrise inspired haiku you wrote on the back of a coffee shop receipt, maybe a little pocket notebook is a good starting point — something smaller than your phone, that you can always have on hand in your purse or back pocket.
It doesn’t matter what you do; just that you do it.
See you out in the world — I’m the guy sitting on the curbside, making rubbings of leaves I found on the sidewalk. In my notebook. 🙂
This post is part of an ongoing series about the #AdlerWall. I encourage you to follow along with the activities, and post your adventures, questions and discoveries on social media using the hashtag #AdlerWall. Links to the entire series are here at the first post of the #AdlerWall Series.