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My paper notebooks were always horrific. Writing has always been painful and awkward for me. But I could type like nobody's business thanks to programming. I survived college in the early 80s by being one of the first students to get a word processor.

By the time I was keeping a notebook, my work was generating mountains of computer readable data, source code, and so forth. We managed by agreeing on a format for data files, where the filename referenced a notebook page, and it worked OK.

Today, it's unavoidable that people are going to keep their notes electronically, and there are no perfect solutions for doing this. Wet chemists still like paper notebooks, since it's hard to get a computer close to the bench, and to type while wearing rubber gloves. Academic workers are expected to supply their own computers, and are nervous about getting them damaged or contaminated. Plus, drawing pictures and writing equations on a computer are both awkward.

Computation related fields lend themselves well to purely electronic notebooks, no surprise. Today, a lot of my work fits perfectly in a Jupyter notebook.

Commercial notebook software exists, but it tends to be sold largely for enterprise use, i.e., the solution it solves is how to control lab workers and secure their results, not how to enable independent, creative work.




Professional lab researchers use physical notebooks because they are lo-tech and immutable. A pre-numbered page in a bound book can't be torn out surreptitiously. Pencil and white-out are disallowed. They're simple and tamper-evident, which is very important if you're designing pharmaceuticals, for instance.

Obviously there's crypto, signing, checksums, and so on, that you can use on computers. But when the answer is as simple as writing in pen in a pre-numbered, bound notebook, and having your supervisor sign your notes, might as well just do that.


Definitely good points. And every field has its own level of security risk. In my case, the greatest risk is me not being able to figure out what I did in the past. I'm not in a tightly regulated / audited industry.


It is not only regulation. There might be a legal fight over a discovery and for this there's nothing like a tamper-evident paper document to prove that a lab did X on date Y.


> Computation related fields lend themselves well to purely electronic notebooks, no surprise. Today, a lot of my work fits perfectly in a Jupyter notebook.

Some notes and ideas regarding Jupyter notebooks as lab notebooks from "Keeping a Lab Notebook [pdf]": https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15710815


A chemist friend of mine has handwriting that is illegible even to him, and his solution is a high quality dictaphone. He used to have it transcribed, but today he just hooks it up to a computer and lets it do the work.




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