The word blog means web log, and this is my second blog post ever. A ship’s logbook is a record for navigation and operation of the ship. Explorers, scientists and doctors have always used logbooks, diaries and journals, knowing that small observations may add up to something significant. Some blogs serve a similar purpose. Blogs, diaries and journals are places for the small observations, as opposed to big theories. Occasionally a casual observation leads to a scientific revolution. Alexander Flemming discovered antibiotics almost by accident. He found that a bacteria culture in his laboratory was contaminated with mold, and it looked like the bacteria colonies near the mold were destroyed. Some people would have cleaned up the mess. Flemming grew the mold, identified the fungus as a penicillium, and the rest is history.
Chemistry revolutionized medicine, initially with limited quantitative sophistication. Mathematics is currently concurring medicine, hopefully with the power to repair chemical failures. Perhaps not surprisingly, mathematics seems more fashionable than ever in biology. What used to be called “models, equations and algorithms” are suddenly “mathematical models”, “mathematical equations” and “mathematical algorithms”. The word “mathematical” will not help biology. Better presentations of quantitative data would. Many times raw data is not given in publications, only summary statistics. Even if the raw data is included, the presentation may be defect. Part of the data is left out for no apparent reason, every single number is 1000 times larger than expected, a table displaying a positive quantity (such as weight) contains negative numbers, units are incorrect or missing. The neglect is unfortunate, since the raw data could be useful for reasons not considered by the experimentalists. Without the data, one cannot stumble on a discovery.
The importance of careful records is beautifully illustrated in the novel Waxing Moon by H. S. Kim. The midwife in a 19th century Korean village makes an entry in her journal after each delivery. A seemingly unimportant and rather vague observation at the time changes the course of events some 20 years later. In fact, a single note in the midwife’s journal turns out to be life saving. Perhaps the fairly widespread neglect of raw data in scientific work stems from the focus on immediate interpretations. Data is produced in order to confirm some belief. The instrumental view of observations, in the most immediate sense, seems to dominate in our time and one can wonder if anyone would notice strangely behaving fungi in the corner of a lab.