Michael R. Canfield (editor) 2011. Field Notes on Science and Nature Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 297 pp. UniM BioMed 570.72 FIEL

This volume comprises twelve chapters by authors who are decidedly at the naturalist end of the spectrum of scientists. The chapters tend to be repetitive pleas for more field researchers to maintain field notes and sketches of a study organism or location, as was done much more frequently in a more gentle bygone era.

Among other weaknesses there is too much advocacy and too little instruction. Like it or not, science is not much done in this way these days and field programs need to cultivate much more rigorous data collection than can be accommodated by the anecdotal observations and sketches whch provide most of the examples. One exception where there is a desperate need for more descriptive natural history is the rarity nowadays of published accounts of the day-to-day biology (feeding, behaviour, associations with other organisms, reproduction and so on) of organisms in the natural world. This kind of information is completely missing for nearly all of even the common species around us. Diligent observations and sketches over a significant time period are the only way to generate publications documenting this useful information which often becomes important for understanding a variety of dependent phenomena (although fewer than ever journals will accept such manuscripts despite their originality).

The only critical contribution is that by Kenn Kaufman: One and a half cheers for List-keeping which as the title suggests is a guarded half-criticism of twitcher-style list keeping strictly as a competitive numbers game.

The book could have benefited from losing or combining a number of the chapters that cover similar material and the addition of some more analytical chapters (eg methods of analysis of presence-only data, which is what nearly all field notebooks contain) and more on digital options. Rather than attempt to survey the quickly expanding field of digital data recording software for mobile devices and cloud data storage, a single chapter presents one rather dated package. Where is the chapter presenting citizen science projects and platforms such as Bower Bird and numerous other projects sponsored by the Atlas of Living Australia and countless similar initiatives in other parts of the world? These are the modern and very effective equivalents of traditional field notebooks.

It is a very narrow, quaint and old-world view of natural history data collection that is presented here.

By far the best element of the book is this quote from the Foreword by E.O. Wilson:

If there is a heaven, and I am allowed entrance, I will ask for no more than an endless living world to walk through and explore. I will carry with me an inexhaustible supply of notebooks, from which I can send reports back to the more sedentary spirits (mostly molecular and cell biologists). Along the way I would expect to meet kindred spirits, among whom would be the authors of the essays in this book.

Well, indeed, we could all enjoy such a heaven (although a few other inclusions would be needed to fully qualify: at a minimum a modicum of human company other than likeable boffins, plentiful Scotch whisky and apples without little plastic stickers). However E.O. Wilson’s is a generous comment; although the chapter authors include some well-known identities, none are in E.O. Wilson’s league. Indeed that is a lasting regret from the volume: the writings of E.O. Wilson are almost unique, at least in the modern era, for their ability to incorporate field notes of the sort repeatedly advocated herein into a body of rigorous, original and highly readable science. I could have done with a substantial contribution from E.O. Wilson on this topic.