Topic outline

  • General

    Experiments in Physics (Fall '10)

    NSC 558 -- 3 credits -- Intermediate

    Course Information:
    • Time: Tuesday afternoons (1:00-ish - 5:00-ish), or maybe a different day by mutual consent; also occasionally on your own time
    • Place: Sci 117B (aka "the physics lab")
    • Text: none
    • Faculty: Travis Norsen

    Course Overview: The main goal of this course is to give intermediate-level physics students some exposure to the methods and problems of experimental physics, including: understanding experimental apparatus and measurement techniques; thinking about and eliminating sources of systematic error; measuring, propagating, and reporting uncertainty; appreciating the close relationship between theory and experiment; and presenting your results clearly. To achieve these goals, over the course of the semester you will perform (in small groups of 2 or 3 depending on enrollment) three or four different experiments. These will likely include a Cavendish-style measurement of Newton's gravitational constant "G" and a measurement of the speed of light "c", as well as one or two of the following: examining the spectrum of light emitted by a (near) blackbody, determining the index of refraction of a piece of glass, examining the interference pattern created in a 2-slit experiment, and examining the chaotic motion of a driven, damped non-linear oscillator.

    The structure of the course (in terms of what, exactly, you are doing on a given day) will be quite flexible, but here is a rough sense of what I think ought to happen. Probably it should take you (and your partner(s)) something like three weeks to complete a given experiment. During the first week, you will spend an entire afternoon just getting to know the apparatus and measurement procedure. Ideally, this will leave you in a position where you understand exactly what you need to do, what the issues are going to be, etc., such that you are ready to begin performing the experiment in earnest during the second week. You might find that some additional time (say, another long evening session with your partner(s)) is required during this second week to get everything working properly, collect the data you need, etc. Then during the third week you will perform whatever computations are needed to "process" the raw data from the experiment into the appropriate final form, and finally write up a report summarizing your procedures and findings.

    Although making your final write-ups look pretty is not exactly the main goal of the course, it is strongly recommended that you take the opportunity (perhaps by registering also for Matt's "writing math" course) to learn to use latex -- a typesetting markup language that is basically the tool for writing documents involving equations. Once you get the hang of it, it'll make writing up reports like this much easier, and will generally be a really really good tool to have in your bag-of-tricks going forward as a science student. Partly to encourage this (and partly also to serve some other obvious educational ends) I'll continue to implement a cute idea I had when I first taught this course a few years ago: your lab write-ups will be "published" -- meaning a hard-copy will be put, permanently, into the 3-ring-binder for the appropriate experiment in the physics lab. You'll find that, for most of the experiments, one or more such write-ups from the previous generation of students are already there in the binders. You will probably find these to be extremely helpful as you struggle to make the experimental apparatus work the way you want -- and in turn your own struggles and solutions (as documented in your write-ups) will make life easier for the generation of students after you. That, at least, is the idea. As suggested earlier, though, part of the idea is just to "peer pressure" you into making your write-ups look nice and read clearly, since you'll know that some of your peers (this semester) and then future generations of students will be seeing your papers!

    Perhaps I will add more information here in time. But for now the above should give you an idea of what this course is for and how it will work.

    Lab Report Template (latex):
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