Research Notes: Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World

I’m in the midst of a mini design project for Beach that’s involved me taking some notes from Carl Sagan’s wonderful book The Demon Haunted World.

I’m always curious how other people do their research work so I thought I’d share a tiny bit of how I do mine. They’re available here as a pdf.

My process is ever-evolving (and unfortunately, largely self-taught too), but I think this is a neat snapshot of a day-in-the-life of working on Beach.

(ps: it’s a fantastic book and you should read it)

Join the Discussion 👂🤔✍️

Stefan Lesser
Thanks for sharing, Jason!

So many questions:
1. Which parts of the PDF are copied/transcribed and what are your own words?
2. Why the columns? Is that because it’s an excerpt or do you arrange information spatially for a reason?
3. Are you familiar with progressive summarization and is that why some parts are highlighted and others bolded? If not, what do highlights and bold represent — what’s the difference between them?
4. How do you get to a column — what’s the process? Do you go from reading a chapter of source material directly to a column in the PDF or are there intermediate steps?
5. What software do you use before it turned into a PDF?

Not sure if you have the time and interest to answer all these, and it’s fine if you don’t. I’m very interested as I’m working on software to help people think and the note-taking/research process, specifically the first steps from source material to notes in your own words, is my focus right now. It’s great to have a chance to peek into somebody else’s process as I think it’s a highly subjective process — which makes creating software for it much more challenging.
Jason Brennan
Hey Stefan, thanks for the great questions!

1. Almost everything was copied (some of it hand-re-typed, some of it copied from pdfs I found to save time. I like to retype if I have the time, as it helps me slow down and focus on the words more).

The only thing I’ve written in this doc are the grey summary headers above some of the columns.

2. I like columns because I find they provide a somewhat natural hierarchy for what I’m excerpting, because they flow well, and because it’s easier to navigate between columns than it is to scroll up/down through a large document.

Columns also invite writing notes in margins (which I haven’t done in this one, but would have if I were taking more thorough notes).

Finally, these days I’m using Sketch as a kind of wiki, and its infinite canvas invites panning around spatially vs having things in long flowing documents. In my Sketch workspace, it’s kind of like I’m making a big poster for my notes.

3. I don’t have a specific process, although what you’re describing (progressive summarization) sounds like what I’m intending to do. The bolding + highlighting are mine, really as devices for my future self to more easily skim. Bold text is used for key words / phrases of a given paragraph, and highlighted text is part “executive summary” and part “this is extra important” for later reference.

4. Column generation is different from note to note, but for this example they’re mostly complete sections from the book. I’d actually read the book earlier in the year but remembered some key bits I wanted to dig up at a later time. This week was the later time. So I skimmed back through the book looking for the important chapters (the baloney detection kit chapter I knew would be easy to find because of its long bulleted lists; the science education chapter I’d marked with a dog-eared page).

For other notes, especially things that dissect papers / websites I read on a computer, I often just capture a lot of screenshots and then arrange them in my Sketch workspace later. It’s a bit of a pain (screenshot, drag them in, lay them out), but I like working with screenshots because they at least retain their formatting (and pasting from a pdf usually brings all kinds of forced line-wrap artifacts — if it’s a pdf that can even be selected + copied).

The downside of screenshots of course if that they’re bitmaps and don’t scale nicely, but that’s usually not too bad of a problem most of the time.

5. Sketch. I quite like it, although I’m hoping to someday replace it with Beach (especially because Beach will eventually allow hyperlinks between things, thus making it a more proper wiki).

Happy to answer any and all other questions you may have!

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