By Sonoe Nakasone, Field Book ProjectAs a child, I spent years developing my own cheesecake recipe. I experimented with multiple baking methods, varying amounts and types of ingredients, and other details until I finally had several perfect recipes. This years-long trial and error process was none other than a (less rigorous) form of the Scientific Method, which required me to
1) hypothesize (cakes become denser when more dense ingredients are added),
2) predict (if I add more cheese, which is dense, the cake will become denser),
3) experiment, and finally
4) evaluate (slight improvement; add more cheese? subtract lighter ingredients? use denser cheese?).
I usually associate the scientific method with lab (or kitchen) work, but science experiments can and often do also occur in the field. When they do, the notes from those experiments are field notes—see where this is going?
Over a year ago, I cataloged field notes by Henry Guernsey Hubbard, horticulturist, botanist, and entomologist for the U.S. Geological Survey (Smithsonian Institution Archives RU7107). Perhaps Hubbard’s blend of professional knowledge specially equipped him to perform his series of field experiments in the 1880s to develop a pesticide for parasitic insects damaging orange trees. He tested several pesticides, emulsions concocted from varying amounts of kerosene and condensed milk. The recipes, included in his field notes, are accompanied by observations on the effectiveness of each emulsion.
Hubbard’s recipes spoke to me. The thought of Hubbard mixing up a strange concoction of kerosene and condensed milk, like some mystical apothecary, made me want to test his pesticide recipes. Beyond the childish desire to mix up odd potions, I was curious to know how effective his solution would be on pests I’ve encountered.
DON’T WORRY! Spraying kerosene on plants in the 1880s might have been acceptable, but in the 21st century, the use of such a pesticide seems environmentally irresponsible and ecologically cruel. Instead, I looked for a mild and environmentally sound alternative to test on my basil. Last summer, my basil was nibbled to pieces. This summer, I took a note from Hubbard and experimented with the effectiveness of a simple pepper spray pesticide. Unlike Hubbard, I only had the time and attention span to test one solution. My hypothesis and prediction: insects would find very spicy substances repelling, so by creating a strong pepper spray, I could prevent them from eating or even being around my basil. My recipe was basic:
Boil 1 jalapeño, sliced and retaining seeds, with 2-4 cups of water for 20 minutes or more.
The water boiled down to a spicy 8oz, which I poured into a spray bottle. I bought two basil plants, drenching the leaves of one plant with my new pesticide and leaving the other unsprayed. Both were planted.
Unfortunately for me and for my readers, I didn’t do a great job at two key elements of the scientific process: the experiment and the evaluation. I was inconsistent about spraying the test plant each day and inconsistent in observing and note taking. I did, however, take before and after pictures. Although these grainy photos show very little, I hope you’re able to see that the recipe seemed successful. The plant with the pesticide received less damage than the one without. My evaluation and conclusion: this stuff works, but would probably produce better results if implemented more consistently.
Hubbard’s field notes are an excellent example of scientific experimentation. The ingredients in Hubbard’s recipes sparked my imagination as readily as the witches’ potion in Macbeth and ignited my desire to conduct my own field experiment. So, from Hubbard to me, from me to you: try a field experiment, and see how you do. And as always, please share your experiences with us.