What Students Can Learn From Newton's Note-Taking Habits

Thanks to Cambridge University, the college notebook of Isaac Newton, one of the most important scientific thinkers of all time, is available for online viewing. What advice can today's undergraduates draw from the note-taking habits of Sir Newton?

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By Sarah Wright

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The College Notebook of Sir Isaac Newton, Now One Tab Over From Facebook

As part of their collection of Newton's papers, the Cambridge University Library's digital collection now includes a high-resolution scan of the great philosopher and physicist's undergraduate notebook. The notebook's pages are browsable and zoomable, though you might not get much from most of the pages unless you speak Latin, since that's the language in which the notes are written. Still, students of today can learn a thing or two from this relic of 17th century education.

Reuse Your Supplies

Paper wasn't exactly inexpensive and readily available prior to the Industrial Revolution, so notebooks would have been valued more highly in Newton's time than in our own. These days, you can buy a notebook for just a couple of dollars, if that. But all those 'starving' college students might want to take a lesson in frugality from Newton, who used one notebook as two by flipping it over and writing on the back side of pages once he was done.

Most students have been there. You don't fill an entire notebook for one class, so you're left with a bunch of half-empty notebooks at the end of a semester. Why not try flipping 'em over and using that empty back half for good? Plus, this can be a good way to consolidate notes for related classes - like putting your French 2 notes in the back of your French 1 notebook.

Sketch it Out

One of the first pages in Newton's notebook features an idea map of sorts. Idea mapping might be sort of an old-school activity, a relic of high school essay requirements, but it's not a bad idea. Idea maps can be particularly helpful for creating a visual reference that can help you connect concepts and ideas over the course of a semester, particularly in classes where lessons build upon each other.

Organize It

Part of the notebook on display is apparently famed for its organization. In this section (folios 88r-135r, starting at image 179 in the digital viewer), Newton used 'certain philosophical questions' to oranize his thoughts. Each page in this section has a heading like 'Of Attomes' (sic), 'Of Place' or 'Of Time & Eternity', and most pages are filled with neat notes and little diagrams drawn to elucidate the student's thoughts. However, some pages are left blank save the heading, like 'Of Odours & Sapors' (image 216), while others include only a couple of notes, like 'Of Touching' (image 217).

It's impossible to know why, exactly, some of these pages were left blank, but it just goes to show that even the greatest geniuses among us sometimes come up blank in school. You can help whip your notes into shape by thinking about what concepts you're most interested in before entering a lecture or doing a reading assignment. Having your notes organized like this might be particularly helpful when it comes time to write a paper or essay.

One Newtonian tendency of today's high-tech students is the habit of taking notes by hand.

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