Physics 128A, Advanced experimental physics, Fall 2013

In Physics 128L, you will work through a set of modern physics experiments. In the process you'll learn how to use several types of equipment, plan and execute a measurement, collect and analyze the data, draw specific and substantiated conclusions, and present it all in a scientific manner.

Instructor:   David Stuart,, Broida 5113.
Teaching assistants:    William Flaherty, Johnathon Frey, Alexander Walter
Lab managers:   Bob Pizzi ( and Dan Bridges (


Below is a list of announcements and useful links; it will be updated over time.

Useful links

Course Materials

  1. A lab notebook. This must be a bound (not looseleaf, not perforated) notebook, containing quad-ruled paper (aka graph paper). You will need TWO of them, since the TAs will be grading one lab while you need to be writing up the next one. If you have a carbon-paper notebook, then a single notebook is acceptable because you can keep the carbons while the TAs grade the originals. However, I encourage you to go with the two notebook approach.
  2. Access to the lab writeups. The bookstore sells a bound copy, but the same information is available here.
  3. Access to data analysis software. Wolfram's Mathematica is preferred. It is installed on all lab computers, many UCSB computer-cluster computers, and in the PSR. If you want a copy on a personal machine, you can buy a ($45) one-semester or ($74) one-year temporary license, or a ($140) regular copy, via There is no physics department or UCSB license with additional discounts. You may also use igor or matlab, which are installed on all the lab computers, or the online plotter. MS Excel is insufficient.
  4. A place to keep your computing work-in-progress. I recommend a USB thumb drive, but some students may prefer uploading data to Dropbox, email, or some such. (Data will usually survive week-to-week on the computers in lab, but they're multi-user computers so do not trust this.)
  5. A sourcebook for statistics and data analysis. I recommend An Introduction to Error Analysis: The Study of Uncertainties in Physical Measurements, by John Taylor. Last year some people got along with Internet resources.

Course schedule

During the first week, Sept. 26 - Oct. 3, we will discuss introductory material and do some common exercises. The remainder of the quarter will be divided into four two-week blocks during which you will do experiments of your choice selected from a set of 13 choices. You will do 4 of these. Enter your preferences via doodle before Saturday. (M/W students should do that here and T/R students should do that here.) During the 10th week, you'll carry out a measurement of your own design.
  1. "Pre-lab lecture week": Sep 26 - Oct 3. We will meet in Broida 3314.
  2. Experiment Block #1: Oct 7 - 17.
  3. Experiment Block #2: Oct 21 - Oct 31.
  4. Experiment Block #3: Nov 4 - 14. (Holiday on Nov 11)
  5. Experiment Block #4: Nov 18 - Nov 28. (Holiday on Nov 28)
  6. "Design your Own Experiment" week: Dec 2 - 5.
  7. Final exam week: No activity.
Each "block" will have the same format.
  1. On Day 1, you and your partners will show up (having read the lab and met with your lab partners) prepared to give a short, 2 or 3 slide talk introducing it. Every group must prepare such a talk; a random subset will be picked to actually deliver it. These talks are worth 15% of your grade.
  2. On days 1-4, you will work independently on the labs, keeping all of your data/procedures/observations/comments in a professional-style lab notebook. The TAs, staff, and professor will circulate to help you. The notebook is worth 60% of your grade. The grading breakdown for the logbooks is here. Attendance is required, firstly because your labmates expect you to work as a team, and secondly because we're paying attention.
  3. On the first day of the next block you must hand in the previous block's notebook, plus a 2-3 page synopsis or mini-writeup. The writeup is worth 25% of your grade. The grading breakdown for the papers is here.

Course Goals

You will also learn some modern physics, by doing it.

Some guidance


There are important safety issues in any lab work, of which you must be aware. Some examples of safety hazards are intense light sources (lasers and gas discharge tubes), electrical hazards (high voltage or current), radiation sources (radioactive substances or X-ray machines), extreme temperatures. I require that you start each experiment by doing an assessment of the safety issues. You will need to take steps to carry out your experiments safely; this is part of acting like a professional experimentalist. For example:

Important safety rules that everyone must follow are:

How to do well

This course is quite different from most of your past classes. Skills that you have honed in past coursework may not apply, and you will need a completely different skill set. For some of you, these may come as naturally as algebra. For others, they might take a while to develop. Learning those skills is a primary goal of this class. Here is my advice on how to approach things.

  1. Accept that you are confused. Identify what you don't understand.
    This part never changes. If you know what you are doing, it is just an exercise, not research.
  2. Formulate a set of specific questions.
    Pick some questions for which you think you know the answer, and confirm that. Pick some questions for which you can find an answer.
  3. Plan a method for answering at least one of these questions.
  4. Carry out your plan.
  5. Go back to 1.

This approach works to attack problems of any scale. You can use it to understand a completely new physical phenomenon or to debug why your car won't start. Note that this is just a rephrasing of the scientific method. It works for things that are not always recognized as science, such as figuring out the behavior of financial markets or people--including yourself.

The methods you use to answer questions will not just be experimental. You will need to do substantial reading on your own to understand the theoretical issues underlying your experiments and how your equipment works. We have equipment manuals and a small library of books that you may check out; they must be returned by your next lab period. You should do such reading before you begin your labs. From it, you should develop a plan of action before you begin. Careful preparation is important because you won't have much time to work with the equipment. (This is true in most experimental work, e.g., when using shared equipment like a telescope.)

An important part of being prepared is understanding how your equipment works. Before using it, you should plan to fiddle around to learn about it. I encourage fiddling, but be careful not to break things. The best way to avoid that is to read the manuals beforehand and plan your fiddling. If the equipment is not working, or if you break it, notify an instructor promptly. You will not get in trouble for breaking something, but you will be in trouble if you don't tell us about it.

Since time with the equipment is limited, you should carefully document everything that you do. You might not expect something to depend on the temperature or the time of day, but you should still record both. It could be helpful after you have collected all your data. For example, you might find that one particular set of data is completely inconsistent with the rest. By knowing when that data was recorded you can correlate it with other effects; perhaps someone powered on some other equipment that caused interference.

It is also useful to analyse the data as you take it. This can help you quickly identify problems. For example, if you are measuring voltage vs current, you should make a table in your logbook where each row is one measurement and has columns for: the time of the measurement, the voltage, the current, and any relevant comments. Then, as you are filling in the table you should also plot the data, e.g., on the opposite page of your logbook. Your plot might reveal a trend that can inform your subsequent work, such as helping you decide to use larger or smaller voltage steps to either go faster or with finer steps.

It will help your experiments succeed if you prepare well, clearly write down your plan, and fully document your work as you go. This is also what we will look for while grading your logbooks.