Zettelkasten Forum


Zettelkästen in the fields of science and history?

Hello everybody,

I recently discovered the Zettelkasten method and am curious, if this method would be of any use to me. I'm doubting because all the explanations I see online or in books about that method using Zettelkästen are in the field of sociology, psychology, personal development etc., and I can see very well, why the method would be useful in those fields, where finding new ideas is a crucial part of the work done there. But I didn't find a single YouTube video or alike made by scientists about that method.

So I wonder, if a Zettelkasten could be useful, as well, in fields where it's much more about facts than insight. I mean, in those fields it's much less about "discovering unexpected relations" and "coming up with new ideas", but much more about collecting data and facts and putting them together into a paper. The huge benefit of the ZK method seems to be not that useful in those fields, as it certainly is in the field of humanities.

In my case: I'm currently working on a paper about a certain historical event. So, I read sources about that event and collect data, so that I'll be able to write a paper that tells the story of this event. So, of course, I could use the ZK method to take literature notes and link them, i. e. I could create my own Wiki … but I fail to see, how that "discovering unexpected relations" aspect (and, as far as I understand, that's the REAL benefit of this method) will play a big role in the fields of science and history, where publications normally don't reveal unexpected ideas but 'simply' publish the results of source study or experiments. Of course, there might be the case where I unexpectedly discover a relationship of said historical event to something completely different – and I could put it in some funny footnote, but that would by no means be something really important to the content of said paper.

Do I miss something? Are there scientists using that method? And, if so, how do they use it? Does the method has a use that expands beyond the role of a personal Wiki? Thanks for your thoughts.

Post edited by Mirawen on

Comments

  • Regarding history: historians have long used Zettelkästen. See, for example, this discussion in this forum: Zettelkasten Method State of the Art in 1898. Even if you don't see much value in "discovering unexpected relations" and "coming up with new ideas", you still need to organize data in some way, and a chronologically oriented Zettelkasten would be a way to do it, as many past historians knew.

  • Thank you, @Andy.
    Yes, I fully agree that a ZK could serve as a Wiki where you can store information, make links between related topics etc. But, as far as I understand, the ZK method goes way beyond that. And that is where I stumble.

    It starts with the idea that you should make "atomic notes", containing just one idea … and express it in your own words. So, ok, if I am a biologist and want to turn the knowledge about the biochemistry of photosynthesis into "atomic notes" that would be difficult to do: "As a first step in the Calvin cycle CO2 is fixed to an acceptor molecule named Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate by an enzyme complex called RuBisCo." That would be one idea … and it's hardly my own words, since this sentence has most likely been written in quite that manner hundreds of times by others. But, well, that note's idea is a fact and I don't see how I could it rephrase it in my own words. Than I would create a second note describing the next step of the Calvin Cycle ... and so on? I don't see, how this could be more useful than describing the whole Cycle in one note. But, well, that wouldn't be very "atomic".

    Or in history: "In 1587, on the 8th of February, Maria Stuart was executed at Fotheringhay Castle in England." It's an atomic idea, but most likely not my own words. And who could this be more useful than a note describing the whole story instead of just one fact per note? And who could this lead to own ideas?

    So, that's my issue with this method. Can it really be useful to people who's work is to deal with facts rather than with original ideas.

  • edited November 5

    @Mirawen I don’t mean to be controversial, but your question suggests that you haven’t actually done much scientific research. I raise this point due to your statement that:

    …it's much less about "discovering unexpected relations" and "coming up with new ideas", but much more about collecting data and facts and putting them together into a paper.

    If that were only true, we’d have scientists running hog wild all over the place, publishing seminal papers. I will grant you that there are many less than stellar scientists doing just that, but try passing that statement off against any scientist worth his or her salt, and you’d be likely to get a good rebuff.

    The statement is at best inaccurate; at worst, it just doesn’t make any sense. I am a simple, sometimes plodding, engineer but my experience over the years (including 10 years working on engineering research) suggests that creativity, serendipity, discovery, and generating new ideas are just as important in the hard sciences as they are in the social sciences. In my work place, I have created several “collaborative” Zettelkasten’s for project work that required creating new ways of solving problems, or simply coming up with new solutions to difficult problems, and that brought together the research efforts and creative thinking of groups of people. I think they might find your characterization of their work to be insulting (except they are mostly too nice to say so).

    I’d say that Zettelkasten is alive and well in the fields of the hard sciences and engineering. Your perception that no scientist writes about Zettelkasten doesn’t really prove anything. Perhaps it’s just that the social scientists like to talk about it more than the scientists and engineers. :smile:

  • @GeoEng51 said:
    @Mirawen I don’t mean to be controversial, but your question suggests that you haven’t actually done much scientific research.

    Hallo GeoEng51,
    your perception is completely right: I don't have done much scientific research. And I be no means wanted to insult people.

    I wanted to hear thoughts about my impression that the ZK method seems to be not very much in use by scientist other than in the field of humanities. Let me illustrate:

    If I was, say a biologist, and wanted to use a ZK, I already struggle with the concept of "putting just one idea into an atomic note in my own words", as it is obviously required to make a ZK do its work. Say, I want to put the biochemistry of photosynthesis into atomic notes, I'd start with "As a first step CO2 is fixed to an acceptor molecule named Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate be means of an enzyme called RuBisCo." Then I would create the second note and so on. Well, first, these are certainly not "my own words", because its just a fact, mentioned by many, many authors and I wouldn't know how to rephrase that in my own words; and, second, I doubt that this kind of note taking could be more useful than creating a single note about the whole process … but this wouldn't be "atomic" an any way. So, how could the ZK do its work here beyond the purpose of being a personal Wiki?

    Or, lets take an example from history: "On the 8th of February in the year 1587 Maria Stuart was executed at Fotheringhay Castle in England." This would be an atomic note. But, again, not really my own words. And how could this be better than just putting the whole story about the events that led to her death into one note … again, this wouldn't be an atomic note. And, again, I wouldn't know how to rephrase it in a way that it would lead to completely new ideas to solve a problem.

    You are, of course, completely right that people who has to solve problems have to come up with new ideas. And I didn't want to downplay that in any way. Sorry, if I did. I just wanted to know how the benefits that I hear so much about in all the YouTube videos on that matter (done by people in the field of humanities) are also something one could expect in the field of science and history, because – as it hopefully became clearer from my examples – there is much less "insight" and "I think that …" involved than rather facts.

  • @Mirawen said:
    Hello everybody,

    I recently discovered the Zettelkasten method and am curious, if this method would be of any use to me. I'm doubting because all the explanations I see online or in books about that method using Zettelkästen are in the field of sociology, psychology, personal development etc., [...] But I didn't find a single YouTube video or alike made by scientists about that method.
    So I wonder, if a Zettelkasten could be useful, as well, in fields where it's much more about facts than insight. I mean, in those fields it's much less about "discovering unexpected relations" and "coming up with new ideas", but much more about collecting data and facts and putting them together into a paper. The huge benefit of the ZK method seems to be not that useful in those fields, as it certainly is in the field of humanities.

    I am using my Zettelkasten for sport science, nutrition and similar more rigid domains of knowledge compared to sociology and personal development. So, I can attest you that it works.

    The reason is that the mechanics of knowledge are universal. It might be that an observation should be captured differently if you are let's say a biologist compared to an author for inspirational-esoteric short stories. However, there are structural principles if one accepts that knowledge is a universal concept.

    However, for each use case the method should be tailored. But it is not like there is a canon out there (unlike for example Getting Things Done).

    I am a Zettler

  • edited November 7

    @Mirawen said:
    Do I miss something? Are there scientists using that method? And, if so, how do they use it? Does the method has a use that expands beyond the role of a personal Wiki? Thanks for your thoughts.

    I am a postdoctoral researcher in chemistry and material science, and I use ZK to organize just about everything related to my research. I can't speak to using ZK for history, but as for my science ZK:

    When I read a paper, I write my thoughts into a Reference Note, including any significant results that feel worth adding to my ZK. I also will add my own thoughts and criticism, and often will link this paper to other papers that feel relevant or to structure/topic notes, as well as any zettel that the reference feels pertinent to.

    I then make new zettel or add to existing zettel based on the content of the reference. I actually don't have too many zettel, tbh, as I find that a lot of my notes are useful on the reference level. In a way, my summary of the paper acts as a zettel in and of itself. "When you prepare this sample like this, you observe this. This might be due to {explanation}. However, {link} refutes this claim, showing instead {alternative data}." Science publishing is almost perfectly set up for ZK in this way, with every claim and explanation linking to another paper. As necessary, I using headings to split up separate sections of a paper so that if I need to link to a specific part of the paper (e.g., the data collection or a specific derivation), I can do that.

    When it feels like something is worth expanding upon or synthesizing from across multiple references, then I'll make a zettel. For example, if there is debate over a topic, it's worth making a note that summarizes the debate, drawing on several different reference notes. Similarly, if there is a topic that is agreed upon across the field, it is also worth making a note that outlines that agreement. "The field uses this model to describe this material property. This model is build on these assumptions. Using that, we derive this equation. It has these limitations, which can be addressed by {link to alternative approach}."

    As for analysis of personal data, most of that ends up existing in my daily notes. The data itself is stored outside of my ZK. Descriptions of the data collection process go into daily notes, along with analysis of that data, initial thoughts on what's going on and what I want to do next, drafts of figures, etc. I used to break these up into individual zettel, so each day would be split up into half a dozen zettel, each one highlighting a different analysis approach or train of thought. I found that this over fragmentation made it harder to recover my thought process after the fact, though. Instead, I now write out the analysis as it happens, breaking the notes up using headings and sub-headings as appropriate. This allows me to link to individual headings, if necessary, while still having the full narrative of my analysis available in a single note. I make sure to appropriately tag and link these notes so that I can find them again without remembering the specific day that I did the analysis. These daily notes are mostly treated as fleeting notes: daily scratch paper to organize thoughts until I'm ready to say something concrete.

    Once something concrete starts to become apparent within my data, I'll draft some zettel based on that. This process is a way of testing the claims that I will make in my eventual publication against the body of literature that I've read, as it already exists within my notes. "This data suggests this, which is supported by {reference} as well as {summary of established model}." As I write the paper, I draft and edit these zettel. Once the paper is published, I consider these zettel complete.

  • but I fail to see, how that "discovering unexpected relations" aspect (and, as far as I understand, that's the REAL benefit of this method) will play a big role in the fields of science and history, where publications normally don't reveal unexpected ideas but 'simply' publish the results of source study or experiments.

    Unless one's research is fully descriptive, practicing it (be it "hard" or "soft") forces one to experiment with ideas and hypotheses. Even descriptive research can benefit from unforeseen connections between sources/facts that can reveal unnoticed dimensions of a phenomenon. A Zettelkasten can help with that—as it is a form of knowledge representation, it can also serve as a modeling tool. Many of my Zettel are basically olog objects, for example.

    I'm currently focusing my research on the influence late 19th century and early 20th century biology had on classic psychoanalysis—in other words, I'm using a Zettelkasten as a tool for working inside the fields of history of science and history of psychology. I can use it both for organizing data and for building models of concepts created by biologists and early psychoanalysts and of how biological models were converted to psychoanalytic ones.

  • @Mirawen Is programming a science? If so, then it also works for me. -- I know that's not very helpful in isolation, but maybe everything else I wrote here makes sense to you from that lens.

    I do collect observations, too, to document existing behavior of systems, come up with explanations, and offer (often multiple) fixes and work-arounds. That's merely (superficial) application of parts of a scientific method, and hardly makes my day job a "science job", but I believe the transfer to empirical sciences is possible. If it scales to spending a year in a lab and keeping record of findings, I can't say, though.

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • @GeoEng51 said:
    @Mirawen I don’t mean to be controversial, but your question suggests that you haven’t actually done much scientific research.

    Hallo GeoEng51,
    your perception is completely right: I don't have done much scientific research. And I be no means wanted to insult people.

    I wanted to hear thoughts about my impression that the ZK method seems to be not very much in use by scientist other than in the field of humanities. Let me illustrate:

    If I was, say a biologist, and wanted to use a ZK, I already struggle with the concept of "putting just one idea into an atomic note in my own words", as it is obviously required to make a ZK do its work. Say, I want to put the biochemistry of photosynthesis into atomic notes, I'd start with "As a first step CO2 is fixed to an acceptor molecule named Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate be means of an enzyme called RuBisCo." Then I would create the second note and so on. Well, first, these are certainly not "my own words", because its just a fact, mentioned by many, many authors and I wouldn't know how to rephrase that in my own words; and, second, I doubt that this kind of note taking could be more useful than creating a single note about the whole process … but this wouldn't be "atomic" an any way. So, how could the ZK do its work here beyond the purpose of being a personal Wiki?

    Or, lets take an example from history: "On the 8th of February in the year 1587 Maria Stuart was executed at Fotheringhay Castle in England." This would be an atomic note. But, again, not really my own words. And how could this be better than just putting the whole story about the events that led to her death into one note … again, this wouldn't be an atomic note. And, again, I wouldn't know how to rephrase it in a way that it would lead to completely new ideas to solve a problem.

    You are, of course, completely right that people who has to solve problems have to come up with new ideas. And I didn't want to downplay that in any way. Sorry, if I did. I just wanted to know how the benefits that I hear so much about in all the YouTube videos on that matter (done by people in the field of humanities) are also something one could expect in the field of science and history, because – as it hopefully became clearer from my examples – there is much less "insight" and "I think that …" involved than rather facts.

  • @Mirawen wrote:
    Say, I want to put the biochemistry of photosynthesis into atomic notes, I'd start with "As a first step CO2 is fixed to an acceptor molecule named Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate be means of an enzyme called RuBisCo." Then I would create the second note and so on.

    I think you have a misconception of what is an atomic note. This just some statement or in modern speak "dead information". So, if you write dead information on a note you'll only get dead information which you could perfectly get anywhere in the internet or some textbook.

    As a biologist, you'd rather dedicate a concise description of the biochemical model of photosynthesis which later on could be a guiding structure if you research on it. It is highly possible that this note serves as a learning tool when you are a student of biology and be then slowly disappear from your radar, possibly forever since it is not at your personal border of known and unkown.

    The same is true for:

    Or, lets take an example from history: "On the 8th of February in the year 1587 Maria Stuart was executed at Fotheringhay Castle in England." This would be an atomic note.

    So, it is not obvious that atomic notes are required to work, though my position is that is highly beneficial. To add to the issue: It is not obvious what atomic truly means.

    My own notes on biochemistry, for example, would be strangely basic to a biologist while the notes on the concept of well-being by a psychologist are strangely basic to me.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited November 16

    Personally, when I'm new to a certain topic, I find taking reading notes from a textbook or scientific article very useful. Yes, they mostly contain statements by others. But:

    • building an outline of important statements helps me to understand the topic
    • these notes serve as nice bookmarks into the source text
    • they help me to recall important aspects of that topic later on
    • they will be needed for citation when I'm building my own thoughts and argumentation later on

    So in my view, these basic reading notes form important building blocks for everything that comes on top of it.

    To illustrate this, here's a screenshot with sample notes for your biochemistry example:

    ">

    For me, having these notes available as atomic notes is much preferable to having them as a single note. As you dive deeper into a topic, most of your statements will get comments, links to related or subordinate aspects, etc. So these notes may turn into overview/structure notes themselves. Also, later on, you may want to filter your notes to focus on a certain sub-topic. All of this will only really be possible with atomic notes.

    And to avoid getting lost, structure notes & multi-file previews as well as the (local) graph will help you to maintain an overview of your (sub)topic.

  • edited November 16

    @Mirawen Thanks for that extra clarification - I can understand better where your question arises. I have a couple of thoughts.

    First, you may be taking too literally the idea of an atomic note. Yes, the idea is to capture one concept in each zettel, but that doesn't mean breaking up an idea into non-reducible parts and putting each one in a zettel. That would be both tedious and not very useful. Some people seem to enjoy producing zettels of minimal size, say 50 words or less. This is often counter-productive.

    Rather, one wants to identify a single but still coherent concept, and put that in a zettel. Obviously, this takes some judgement. Sometimes you think you have it right, and then later, when your understanding of a concept improves, you go back and split one zettel into 2 or 3 parts, and sometimes you combine a couple of zettels. I find the right length (for me) is in the range of 100 to 400 words, although I have both shorter and longer zettels than that. Sometimes the nature of the zettel requires a longer discussion. For instance, some of my zettels deal with memories of life-defining experiences. By the time I describe the experience and what I gained from it, the zettel could be well over 500 words. I don't get too fussed about its physical length but pay more attention to capturing a coherent idea.

    In trying to do that, a common pattern has emerged in my zettels is: a) state, in my own words, an idea or relate an experience, b) state, again in my own words or perhaps with a short quote, what others have said about that idea or experience, and c) state what I think on the matter. Here is an example zettel related to the concept of risk in engineering - trying to define and understand what is meant by a "black swan event":

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb says that a Black Swan has three attributes:

    1. A Black Swan is a rare, unexpected event. That is, it is truly rare (hardly ever happens) and it is way outside of the collective experience of a group of people, so that they would not consider it to be possible.
    2. It can have positive or negative consequences, but those consequences are usually extreme.
    3. Despite point 1, human nature "makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable".

    I'm not convinced the last point is a requirement for something to be a Black Swan or just a reflection of what people do once one has occurred.

    Just because something is outside of our own experience does not mean it is a Black Swan, because our own experience is by its nature limited. Hence the importance, in dealing with risk, of taking counsel with a group of people of wide and varied knowledge and experience.

    By its nature, one cannot predict the occurrence of a Black Swan. Is there some way to be prepared for one?

    Apparently the antidote to a Black Swan (for both people and systems) is to be "anti-fragile".


    internal links:
    [[202006191546]] Taking counsel with others.
    [[202006191955]] Anti-fragility.
    [[202007122029]] Risk Assessment
    external links:
    https://fs.blog/2011/10/what-is-a-black-swan/

    I hope the above gives some sense of both the idea of "completeness" of a concept in one zettel and how I try to capture my "own" thoughts on the matter, (that zettel, with macro data, was 269 words long, by the way). Note that I avoided the temptation to discuss "anti-fragility" in this zettel, but relegated that to a separate zettel.

    Parenthetically, keep in mind that hardly any of our "own thoughts" are truly original - we absorb so much from others, even before we are conscious of the process, then remould and recombine those ideas, and have them modified by our experience. Still, that process ends up with words exiting our mouth or text we type on a page, so we do own them to some extent.

    Now, the magic of your ZK isn't usually apparent by reading one zettel. It becomes apparent only after some time of writing and connecting zettels, and then much later "entering" your ZK at some point (say from a structure note or from a tag), following connections between zettels, and reading or finding something which in the context of our current search, is new. That is really exciting - applying an apparently disparate concept to a current line of thought.

    I can attest that this process is very real in science and engineering work. I mentioned that I have worked on projects with 6 or 8 other people, all collaboratively contributing to one ZK. Over a period of several months of research, we may end up with several thousand zettels. Connecting the zettels in that situation is a bit tricky - you need a guru of sorts who is doing that constantly. But then when you enter the ZK and find something new, it can be new not just in the context of your current search or line of thought, but truly new to you (since someone else created that zettel and possibly someone else created the thought path you followed by the connected zettels).

    I guess a closing remark would be that you can read about what a ZK is, how it is created, how individual zettels are written and connected, etc., etc. You can understand the theory and the logic. But you can't understand the "magic" until you actually work on and with a ZK for a period of time (I would say time is more important than number of zettels; others think there is also a critical mass of zettels needed). You develop your own ways of writing and connecting zettels, your own ways of "maintaining" your ZK, and ultimately, your own ways of "using" and gaining insights from your ZK. Your ZK isn't an entirely logical, self-contained creature - it develops its own character, value and hidden associations. Some of that comes from capturing and contrasting moments from your constantly evolving and changing mind. When following lines of thought in your ZK, you are automatically comparing and contrasting present truths and insights with those of the past.

  • Perhaps, you thought about the principle of atomicity just conceptually but not as part of a learning method?

    To make a note atomic is not a trivial thing but a conscious part of the method of atomic note taking. I deliberately avoided the term Zettelkasten Method to highlight that this is just a part of an overall toolkit which is organised to provide an integrated thinking environment.

    The answer to the question of what you want to isolate is similar to the question of what you want to isolate in sports: If you are a soccer trainer, do you want to isolate the calf muscles (gastrocnemius + soleus)? To answer the question, you need to collect an organise all the possible atoms by breaking down complex molecules into its parts. At a point, you will get a more and more robust hypothesis on what is atomic to you because it does not make sense to break atoms any further.

    This is part of the learning process in becoming a good soccer trainer and is part of your versatility in solving training problems: You become proficient in navigating the various levels of complexity. Then you know on which level of analysis you can solve problems in training planning and structuring.

    So, the very act of figuring out what atoms are is an act of understanding the matter. Your Zettelkasten is just the physical or digital manifestation like notes that you take to understand. The benefit of the Zettelkasten is that you now have material that you can work on. @msteffens mentioned some of the further use cases.

    It is like Luhmann said: You need to write anyhow.

    This leads to another question: what are we to do with what we have written down? Certainly, at first we will produce mostly garbage. But we have been educated to expect something useful from our activities and soon lose confidence if nothing useful seems to result. We should therefore reflect on whether and how we arrange our notes so that they are available for later access. At least this should be a consoling illusion. This requires a computer or a card file with numbered index cards and an index. The constant accommodation of notes is then a further step in our working process. It costs time, but it is also an activity that goes beyond the mere monotony of reading and incidentally trains our memory. https://luhmann.surge.sh/learning-how-to-read

    I am a Zettler

  • @Mirawen said:
    Do I miss something? Are there scientists using that method? And, if so, how do they use it? Does the method has a use that expands beyond the role of a personal Wiki? Thanks for your thoughts.

    Do you consider Umberto Eco a scientist? If yes, he describes a slipbox technology and writes about his experience with it in "How to write a thesis".

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