Observation: The Basis of all Science
Why are you reading this? If you don't know, or if it is because someone else told you to do so, you had better read this first!
Observations are the foundation of all science. The reliance on observation is what has made science so successful. It is at the heart of why science has transformed life and civilization.
So it is appropriate to start with practice observations. We have all been observing since before birth! So observation is not new to anyone. But scientists have developed some habits that they believe optimizing learning using observations. So one of the goals of Experiment 1-1 is to practice observing using the habits of scientists. These habits will be valuable whether you become the owner of your own business, the president of a country, a scientist, or just about any other vocation you might choose.
- Get a notebook, preferably a bound notebook with pages sewn together, that you can make into your personal science journal. Loose scraps of paper get discarded or lost. The purpose of your journal is to keep information forever. The journal is not to double as scratch paper, but to preserve your observations and thoughts that you likely will soon forget. You should write enough information in a detailed manner so it can restore your memory whenever desired.
- Each page should be numbered. Each entry should be dated and initialed or signed. (Journals take on legal significance if you ever have to prove when you did something!) Ink lasts much better than pencil, so use an ink that will be easy to read years in the future.
- Start with a brief statement of the purpose of what you are about to do. This helps your mind clarify your goal.
- If you are doing anything very complex, number and write down each step of the process. The idea is to write enough so long after you have forgotten, the steps will allow you to recreate the complete memory. It is often helpful to think of writing to someone else enough details so they could exactly repeat what you are doing. Don't worry about mistakes. This does not need to impress anyone for neatness or beauty. If you do make a mistake, just draw a single line through the error so later it will even be possible to read each mistake.
- Record your observations using whatever format makes later reading easiest. Use tables for batches of measurements.
- Describe any discoveries, hunches, or other passing thoughts.
It is probably obvious that you could practice observing anything that is of interest to you. (It is the hope of the author that you will actually begin to do just that. Of course what you find interesting may bore others, or even be shocking to some. But the goal is to develop skills useful to your needs and interests rather than just develop clones.) But because you may desire some sort of credit for learning science, and because we wish to develop some common experiences that we can reference later, Experiment 1-1 specifies what you should try to observe:
- Obtain and observe a burning candle. Caution: Only proceed if adult supervision is present. Only work in a location where the experiment can be safely conducted. Keep all other flammable materials away. Don't leave any burning candle unattended. Extinguish the flame if you get a phone call or any other interruption. The world is filled with hazards. Be prepared as possible for every potential accident. Think ahead! Playing with hazards often leads to tragedies. This assignment is to OBSERVE fire, not to play with fire. You are responsible for any damages or injuries you cause. If a fire did start, what should you do? If you are on fire, stop moving about, drop to the floor, and roll to extinguish. Have ready a fire extinguisher, pail of water, or heavy towel or blanket to suffocate a small fire. Have a phone nearby to call for help (911?). If a fire gets out of control, tell everyone. Evacuate before a fire blocks exits. This probably seems like we have been diverted off task from learning science to safety. But unlikely as they are, emergencies need to be pondered BEFORE they might occur because there isn't time to think clearly during an emergency.
- Draw what the candle looks like, label the parts, and estimate measurements. Use other senses beyond sight: What do you hear, smell, and feel. (Note a scientist quickly becomes reluctant to taste unknown chemicals. A substance should be considered poisonous unless it is know not to be.) Be careful to distinguish what is directly observable from interpretations that require educated guesses or information from common knowledge or other sources. For example, to say the candle is made of wax is an interpretation, while describing its color, texture, and feel are observations. In 1860, Michael Faraday, famous English scientist, gave a series of six Christmas lectures on a candle! If Faraday could find enough to fill six lectures, don't believe you've exhausted all possibilities with a short list. You also might want to make observations of the candle after freshly blown out.
- Finally, scientists often construct formal reports for others to read. Communicating technical information such as observations and findings is another skill used by scientists but useful for most others. Use the observations in your journal to construct a formal report. Refer to what details should appear in such a formal report. It is critical that the report be based on your observations and not copied from someone else.
Alternate Experiment 1-1
If it is not possible to observe a burning candle, choose something else you can observe and report.
It is a little strange that we are just now beginning to understand how our sense organs make observation possible. Do you want to read more about our senses?
Optional reading AFTER you have completed the assignment: Michael Faraday, Chemical History of a Candle 1860 London, reproduced by Paul Halsall in his Internet Modern History Sourcebook.