This popular phrase accurately portrays situations in which people sometimes get so focused on the details that they lose sight of the big picture. In other words, you’re paying so much attention to the trees right in front of you that you forget that the trees are just part of a larger forest.
Not being able to see the forest for the trees is a problem that each of us encounter from time to time. When observing the world around us, it’s easy to focus on interesting details and lose sight of larger concepts. For scientists, though, it’s important to be able to focus on both the forest and the trees.
Since the beginning of scientific inquiry thousands of years ago, observations have been critical. The first scientists used their senses to see, hear, smell, feel, and taste the world around them. Through these observations, they learned about the world around them and began to search for answers to the questions that naturally arose.
Sometimes, they observed the smallest details of a situation. Making careful observations over time, early scientists would record their observations in field journals. After months or years of careful observations, scientists could compare journal entries to reveal patterns in nature. By observing the details and comparing them over time, they could gain insights about the bigger picture of what was going on in the world around them and make predictions about the future.
Today, scientists still rely upon their five senses to make observations. However, they also take advantage of modern technology to make observations with a wide variety of tools that allow them to “see” the world in ways beyond what their five senses allow.
For example, microscopes allow scientists to observe indirectly tiny bacteria that can’t be seen by the naked eye. Likewise, telescopes allow astronomers to see distant planets and stars that would otherwise remain part of the great unknown.
Scientists also use tools that take precise measurements of phenomena that human senses either can’t detect at all or can only detect imprecisely. For example, a thermometer can tell a scientist the exact temperature of an object that a human hand might only be able to sense as hot or cold.
From radar detectors and radiation sensors to X-ray crystallography machines and mass spectrometers, modern scientists have an incredible array of tools at their disposal to observe the world in ways never imagined by early scientists. Some of these tools help them observe minute details while others help them see the big picture.
So how do you observe the world? Do you rely on your senses or do you make use of tools, too? When you’re curious about the world around you and you seek data to confirm or deny you suspicions, how do you go about making observations that will yield answers? Think like a scientist and try to focus on the details while also keeping the big picture in mind!