Have you ever had a friend claim that he can’t see the forest for the trees? If so, you may have WONDERed what this curious phrase means. If you can see the trees, how can you not see the forest?

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!

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  1. I can so see this being used by parents, but teachers, too. The little video clips could spark some curiosity among the children. I”m glad the vocabulary list is included.
    I can’t wait to see what else children will be wondering about.

    • Rex, Fanya shared some wonderful ideas for exploration if you don’t have a backyard. The possibilities are endless.

  2. When my daughter was around Zoe age, I used to do some explorations with my her using potted plants and actually started a small indoor garden. Sometimes we used food coloring and shaving cream to experiment with. We also loved the beach, so we would collect shells especially whenever we went to new parts of the beach and of course our local parks. I think I will revisit some of these outings again, especially now that she is older and in middle school. It would be curious to see what she comes up with and how I can use this site for more ideas.

  3. This is Wills. I have been keeping a journal like this for 4 years, but sometimes I forget to write in it. I thought stink bugs sprayed out a stink when you held them. But it doesn’t look like Charlie did that. I hike with my mom and dad and 2 dogs, Buddy and Leo, and we see everything out there. It’s cool to look into a clear river. SO many things in there. We spend most of our time outside. Because my dogs like it too.

  4. I love nature but it is being ruined
    by global warming, and hunters and people who cut down trees to build stuff. It is sad.

    • We are glad you’re thinking about the ways we can take care of our Earth, Leah! Perhaps you’ll enjoy this Wonder: Wonder #43– Where Do Recycled Items Go? :)

    • Hi Fallon! Adopting a spot is as simple as finding a special place outdoors. This could be in a park, your back yard, anywhere you WONDER! Happy WONDERing! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Are you a good observer?
  • Can you see the forest for the trees?
  • How do scientists make observations?

Wonder Gallery

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Try It Out

We hope you enjoyed today’s Wonder of the Day! Be sure to check out the following activities with a friend or family member:

  • One of the most spectacular tools man has created for observing the outer reaches of the universe is the Hubble Space Telescope. Explore some of the Hubble’s most amazing discoveries when you check out the HubbleSite Gallery Isn’t it cool how scientists can learn all sorts of new things about the universe even though they can’t observe the far reaches of the universe directly?
  • Use your imagination to take a trip back into time. Pretend you’re a scientist from 50, 75, or even 100 years ago. How would you have gone about exploring the world around you? What would you have done when you encountered a strange phenomenon that you couldn’t readily explore with your five senses? Do you think you could’ve made the mental leaps and discoveries that scientists did long ago? How do you think the need for tools for scientific observation led to some of the inventions we take for granted today? Discuss your ideas with a friend or family member.
  • Up for a challenge? A fun way to get started with scientific observation is to “adopt a spot” in your backyard and make it the inspiration for your very own scientific observations that you can record in a field journal. All you need to do is pick a location, grab a journal, and start observing and writing! Make regular observations and note any changes that have taken place since your last visit. Be sure to record what you see, hear, and smell in your journal. Do you see a parade of ants marching? Can you hear a cricket symphony? Is the aroma of freshly cut grass in the air? Feel free to supplement your journal entries with sketches, rubbings, and drawings if you find yourself inspired by the veins on a leaf or the pattern on a moth’s wings. Visit at different times of the day to see how things change based upon the time of day. What types of songbirds sing to the morning dewdrops? Do certain flowers close their petals in silver moonlight? Dive into nature guides with an adult friend or family member to identify the flora and fauna that call your adopted spot home. From fall foliage to unfurling ferns, creeping caterpillars to darting dragonflies — each expedition to the same special spot provides an opportunity to make a brand-new discovery. So what are you waiting for? Grab your journal and go! It’s time to explore the world right beyond your back door.

Still Wondering

In National Geographic Education’s The Scientific Method in Undersea Archaeology lesson, students discuss how the scientific method was used in studies of the Black Sea.

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Wonder What’s Next?

Tomorrow’s Wonder of the Day explores why cold air can make your lungs feel like they’re on fire!

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