Joe Peidle developed this class with Melissa Franklin to help expose advanced physics students to apparatuses that they may encounter in a real research lab. Students come into experimental lab sections to perform simple activities with the staff to learn how to use the apparatuses throughout the entire class.
In the most general terms, the goal of the course is to engage the student in the practice and discussion of experimental scientific research. After this course, the student will have a diverse set of experimental skills and knowledge that will allow the student to think more critically about the physical world. Experimental physics requires studying and measuring the world around us in a quantitative way. Physicians models these observations and measurements and develop theories that can explain the observations and make new predictions. In the best of worlds, theory and experiment complement each other, sometimes one leading and the other lagging, but it is experiment that has the final word. Note that experimentation is not the same as "confirming a theory." Experiment reveals the true physics of nature to within uncertainties and may invite the development of new theory (experiment cannot confirm theory, only fail to disprove it).
Although many of the projects in this course involve classic experiments supported by well-established theory, the student should treat his work as an independent attempt to probe some physical phenomenon, observe new phenomena, and test predictions. The student must decide appropriate boundaries for the precision and accuracy of his measurements, and he must determine the sources and extent of uncertainties or error in his analysis.
Upon completion of the course, the student will be able to: 1) Develop physics background knowledge for carrying out novel experiments 2) Establish and communicate the purpose of an experiment 3) Operate and troubleshoot complex physical apparatus 4) Devise a procedure for achieving the goals of an experiment 5) Evaluate the effect of experimental errors and assumptions 6) Explain, follow, and ensure lab safety 7) Detail and analyze observations and make predictions about a variety of physical processes By the end of the semester, the student will have engaged in the process of scientific inquiry and provided lucid descriptions and interpretations of his results. Great advances have been achieved in our understanding of nature enabled by the development of advanced and sensitive instrumentation. Much of this is general purpose and not specific to one experiment, so that it can be applied to explore new ideas. Thus the student will familiarize himself with modern instrumentation such as oscilloscopes, lock-in amplifiers, lasers, and other computer-interfaced instruments. The student will also learn a variety of experimental techniques, such as achieving low temperatures with cryogenic fluids, optical pumping, particle counters, resonance, etc
In the end, the student must learn to describe and interpret their results in a written format that is appropriate for a peer-reviewed journal. Scientific publications usually take the form of 10-15 page-long papers or 3-4 page-long letters. Papers, such as those in Physical Review A, B, C, etc., are for detailed and complete sets of results. Letters, such as those in Physical Review Letters, are for rapid reporting to the scientific community of important new results. The first and second experiments will be written up in Paper format. With permission of the faculty, the third experiment may be written as a Letter. Because scientific writing skills are extremely valuable and emphasized in few science classes, the development of scientific writing abilities is an important part of this course. It is the central criterion upon which grades are based (though not the only criterion). Specifically, the student will learn to be both thorough and concise in describing background, procedures, results and conclusions; convey a clear grasp of both the theoretical models and the scientific methodology at work in experimental science; and, finally, present a polished work for an audience composed of physicists (which includes faculty, graduate students and his peers).