Wednesday, November 09, 2011

A Blank, Empty, and Awesome Gift

I had lunch with an old friend a week or two ago. He, like me, is a doctor, and we had an interesting conversation, as we always do. One of our unfinished conversations, begun some years ago, concerned the nature of Science, and its "Division and Methods" - I had promised him a copy of that famous study by St. Thomas Aquinas (his commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius) and had finally given it to him. We were also discussing my curious project - also now aged some many years, to which I am finally returning, and I remarked on the interesting relation between doing or PRACTICING Science and CONTEMPLATING the doing... so very astutely linked in Boethius' well-known The Consolation of Philosophy.

And as we talked, my friend the doctor said, "You ought to have a lab notebook... I have a spare one - we don't use them any more, it's all electronic now... I'll send it to you."

And he did. It's very nice: a fat thing much like the old "composition notebooks" we used in grade school, but with heavier covers, and about an inch bigger than a standard laser-printer page. It's all scored into grids - what some call "graph paper"... uh... about which I may have to tell some jokes one of these days. Ah, it's the sort of thing that makes me laugh, like when I (as a mathematician) hear people talk about GROUP therapy... hee hee! (Let's say the Rule together, shall we? A set and an operator which have Closure, Associativity, Identity and Inverse... these constitute a Group.) Ahem. Anyway, like the hairs of our head, every grid-lined page of this notebook is numbered - and yet there are TWO of each page, so you can make a carbon copy. The copy can go in your file, while the original stays bound in its place.

Ah, it sits there, so tempting - and my bottle of ink and my pen are waiting...

I debated posting this over on the Duhem Society blogg, since it is quite apropos of our discussion there on "the Scientific Method" and related matters, but I felt it would work better here. Another time I will say some more about this splendid gift - sure, it may sound very Chestertonian to contemplate a blank notebook with such admiration, but then why shouldn't we?
The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colourless.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:244]
We scientists must also have a starting point - sometimes we call it providing a control, other times we speak of reducing the independent variables, or excluding the personal dimension or the biassed approach... and this is why we need as thorough a grounding in philosophy as we do in mathematics - or (and it will shock some of my readers) or in literature. Yes - for if you cannot read and cannot write, you can neither consult the Authorities, nor can you publish your results. And then you are not doing Science at all. You may be enjoying yourself, but that does not "constitute the thing" we are doing - no, not at all. Then the word is not Science, but Selfishness - or, in extreme cases, Solipsism.

I would like to write more on this - though it probably belongs over in the DS blogg. But I have some work to get to... and so... oh yeah. There is one other thing I must tell you. There was also enclosed a note which reads:
Remember, it goes:
(1) Date
(2) Title
(3) Materials
(4) Methods
(5) Results
(6) Conclusions

And remember, it's for Posterity!
Yes, indeed. I am truly grateful to be reminded - our work is for Posterity. Let us proceed with God's help, in our lab or office or home... and do all for the Glory of God, and as a work of love for our neighbors. Yes... let us not lose sight that even the most abstruse and theoretical studies can be for our neighbor's good, even for society:
It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning.
[GKC What's Wrong With the World CW4:43]
What a great gift! Thanks, Doctor. Soon I hope to begin using the notebook, and I will surely bear all this in mind as I work. Now, ahem, ahem... where did I leave my lab coat?


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