Observation of Your Hand

(Updated based on feedback from participants. Thanks!)

OK, now that we have had some fun with observation, it is time to start exploring how observation is used in science. The main purpose of science is answering questions about the natural world, but before you can find answers, first you need questions. Those questions are often the result of careful observation.

To practice finding questions you will need:

  • your hand
  • paper
  • pen or pencil
  • curiosity

We are going to be doing an activity that I learned many years ago. If you look closely and carefully at a familiar object for long enough, you will start to notice things that you never thought about before. As you observe more and more, you will start to find questions.

Start by looking at your hand. It is nothing new. You have probably looked at it every day of your life. Even so, there are probably things about it that you have never noticed or thought about.

Spend at least 30 minutes examining your hand. Thirty minutes! No way! That would be so boring! Actually reaching the point of boredom is part of the process.

Be prepared. At first, you probably won't see anything new. You can probably write quite a few questions based on what you already are familiar with, such as differences between your fingers and your thumb, or differences between the skin of your palm and the skin on the back of your hand.

Once you have looked at all of the things you already know about your hand, you will start to get bored, and consider stopping early. You have run out of obvious questions, and you are wondering what the point is of sitting here, looking at your hand when you already have some very good questions. Stick with it. Let yourself get a bit bored. Don't force the process. Let your mind wander a bit, but keep looking at your hand.

If you stick with it, you will reach a point where something new jumps out at you. It will probably be something that has been right in front of you all your life, but you never really noticed it before. How long it takes varies tremendously from person to person. The first time I tried this, looking at a pine forest in Florida, I sat there looking at the trees for several hours. By the end, I was shocked by things that I had never really thought about before.

Don't rush to write down the first new question you discover. Give your brain time to play some more. Often one realization will trigger others. This happens frequently in the world of science.

Don't worry about the answers for now. Just write down the questions. We will look for answers later, and you can look back in your journal to remember your questions.

This technique works for all sorts of things. I use it frequently when I am looking for ideas for science photos, new experiment ideas, etc. The more you practice at it, the easier it gets.

NOTE: Because they are used to carefully observing things and asking questions, young students may only need a few minutes to produce a very long list of questions.