#80. Observe something and keep a record on a daily basis

IDEA #80. Observe something and keep a record on a daily basis—your weight, the temperature at breakfast, the number of cars parked on your block at a particular time of day, the number of times your teacher says a particular word over a two-week period…. Make a graph and look for patterns.

If scientific genius is “ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration,” as Thomas Edison said, much of the sweat equity in progress has come from careful, regular observation and record-keeping. Extraordinarily, it is the highly disciplined management and analysis of disease records, rather than lab work with microorganisms, that has led to the understanding of the causes of many epidemic diseases, and the laws of planetary motion are a product of the detailed recording of planetary positions by Tycho Brahe; Kepler and Newton drew upon such records to derive mathematical principles, and Newton applied these principles to the study of gravity.

Modern science depends on detailed quantitative record-keeping, and much of the application of computers in science is in the service of developing statistical models. The young scientist who sets about the precise recording of observed data is, therefore, participating in a long and fundamental scientific tradition.

The fun of this activity, of course, is to begin to discern patterns. If the recorder makes a point of recording several possibly related kinds of data—temperature and barometric pressure, say, or the total number of goals scored in each game each day in a professional ice hockey league and the number of spectators in each arena—interesting correlations may appear. The task of the scientist, of course, is to determine whether these correlations are in fact the result of some natural or psychological forces or merely coincidence. The number of fish caught by Aunt Minnie each day may or may not have anything to do with what Aunt Minnie had for breakfast, but careful observation of these two phenomena might yield significant data.

As with any form of observation, regularity, precision, and the number of data points generated are the key to meaningful results, and so this activity also involves a certain amount of self-discipline before there can be any analysis. The more consistent the manner of the observation and recording, the more useful the data will be.

#65. Find a local scientific or medical laboratory (try a college or university) or a company whose work is primarily involved with science or engineering. See if you can spend a few days observing, or perhaps even offer to volunteer.

IDEA #65. Find a local scientific or medical laboratory (try a college or university) or a company whose work is primarily involved with science or engineering. See if you can spend a few days observing, or perhaps even offer to volunteer.

Science and technology form the backbone of the American innovation economy, and many institutions and companies, small and large, are deeply engaged in research and development. In some cases the work is “pure” science, tracking down basic knowledge, while in other cases the work is applying scientific know-how to specific practical problems. In any case, somewhere relatively close by should be a commercial, educational, or medical laboratory that the interested youngster could approach about observing science at work.

There are likely to be practical or even legal restrictions on any such activity, but the chance to spend a few days simply watching scientists or engineers at work should be well worth any time that is involved. Some places may welcome questions, while others will be less receptive to interruption, but if the youngster displays an active, thoughtful curiosity, a supportive relationship could grow. Depending on the nature of the work and the age and capabilities of the young observer, it might also be possible to parlay this interest into an opportunity to volunteer or intern.

Most school science classes do a good job teaching students about the theory of science, and the best of them include realistic laboratory exercises that give students the chance to perform procedures, record data, and actually apply some theory. But until a student has seen a real laboratory in action and shared some of the day-in, day-out routine of science—especially when the science being done is original work directed at answering important questions—he or she can never fully appreciate the complexity and the richness of authentic scientific inquiry.

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