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Faraday’s hand-written notebooks…have long been of interest to historians and philosophers of science because of the extraordinarily direct insight they give into the way his thinking developed…. They are also remarkable in the amount of detail that they give about the design and setting up of experiments, interspersed with comments about their outcome and thoughts of a more philosophical kind. All are couched in plain language, with many vivid phrases of delightful spontaneity….

Peter Day, ‘The Philosopher’s Tree: A Selection of Michael Faraday’s Writings’1


Writing the Laboratory Notebook

The skill of writing the Laboratory Notebook – even the existence of such a Notebook – has probably fallen somewhat into disuse with the advent of the photocopied worksheet. Yet it is a vital part of industrial and academic research, and indeed can in these activities be required in law to establish, for example, patent rights. Kanare2 offers many insights into how such rights may be protected, and I am indebted to his book for numerous things that I had not thought of. This page offers some hints for the revival of the Art of the Laboratory Notebook in a school or university undergraduate setting.


Plain language

It would be a brave professional scientist, let alone teacher or student, who would take issue with Faraday. Notebooks ‘couched in plain language, with vivid phrases….’. What a marvellous image Peter Day conjures up. All of Faraday's notebooks exist and remain at the Royal Institution in Albemarle St. where they were all written.

The whole point of a laboratory notebook is that it should

Any rules that are used must attend to these points; anything else is spurious. Plain language is the least spurious of all.


Books, pens and paper are the tools of your academic trade; skimping on them is absurd. Paper trees are a crop – paper is not made from rainforest timber, it’s made from spruce or larch grown for the purpose – so do not be mean with paper. (I have an interest in paper and in writing and writing tools, and can bore for hours on this. It’ll appear in these pages sooner or later, have no fear.)

Here are some rules for hardware:


Organising your notebook

Anyone should be able to pick up your notebook and understand what you have written3. This must be the main thing - you are writing for someone else. If the writing is clear to them, then it certainly will be to you. Achieving this requires some organisation as well as a certain style.


Good notebook practices

The Experimental Introduction.

The introduction to your experimental report should have the following:


The experimental plan.

This is the part of the account that tells what you are going to do. It may be that you have detailed instructions already, in which case they can be written or pasted into the notebook. If you are planning an investigation you will have to write out your own plan. If so:


Observations and Data.

The observations you make and the data that you record will lead to the acceptance or rejection of your hypothesis, and will decide what future experiments may be done. The observations and data are therefore central to the whole exercise. They need to be:






Discussion and conclusion



Science does not take place on the pages of textbooks or learned journals, but it is recorded there. The quality of any work is only as good as the report that remembers it when the test-tubes have long been washed up.




    1. Day, Peter: The Philosopher’s Tree, A Selection of Michael Faraday’s Writings. Bristol: Institute of Physics Publishing, 1999. ISBN 0 7503 0571
    2. Kanare, Howard M: Writing the Laboratory Notebook. Washington D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1985. ISBN 0 8412 0933 2
    3. Kanare, op. cit. p 63.

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