Welcome to Year 1 lab!

Lab is a vital skill for all physicists – whether you are more experimentally or theoretically inclined, the ability to plan experiments to test a hypothesis, analyse the results and draw conclusions will always be necessary. Even Einstein spent time in the laboratories – and he employed the same skills and techniques in ‘thought experiments’ to produce his theory of relativity.  

This year sees the start of a major program to upgrade our undergraduate labs – bringing them into the 21st Century. The equipment you will be using will be the same as what is used in research labs throughout the university and you will be taught vital skills in areas including optics, electromagnetism, mechanics and electronics – though all will revolve around the ability to think critically, to perform experiments and to communicate your results. Many of the experiments have been designed with the help of students now in Years 2, 3 and 4 to take into account what both researchers and students thought would be needed to help you develop into the best physicists you could be.

Labs tabs

Intro experiments

Throughout most of Term 1 and 2 you will spend one morning or one afternoon in the laboratories. The first few weeks of Term 1 will see introductory experiments in Planck’s law, the sound waves and the stiff pendulum, which will teach you how to use various items of equipment around the lab whilst accurately measuring simple physical constants – h, cs and g. The experiments will also help show you what is expected from physicists in terms of keeping records and writing reports. In conjunction with the introductory experiments, everyone will be taking a course in Python, which will be used extensively in later labs to explore your data – displaying results, performing error analysis and comparing results to simple physical models.

Lab cycles 1 and 2

After the introductory experiments there are two 6-week long lab cycles – one lab cycle looks at ‘electromagnetics’ with three weeks of experiments in optics and three weeks exploring electric and magnetic fields; the other lab cycle performing a series of more complex experiments looking at topics including coupled oscillations and interferometry

Advanced electronics

In the second half of Term 2, those doing the standard physics BSc and MSc take the advanced electronics modules, where over a course of five weeks labs and lectures combine to enable you to understand and perform experiments with analogue and digital circuitry.

First year projects

In Term 3, every first year does a 6-week long project. These projects are usually held up as a highlight of our first year physics course. All of the different research groups in the department contribute, suggesting project titles and helping provide supervision (and often allow their cutting edge equipment – to be ‘borrowed’) – past projects have included building Megavolt tesla coils, imaging shockwaves and attempting to make a small Fusion device.

Lab books and reports

You are required to make notes and to record measurements in a laboratory notebook.  This is a vital habit to develop, so that you can repeat and improve your experiments at a later date – every physicist in the building has or contributes to a lab book in some form. Lab books can even have a ‘legal basis’ – providing evidence of what was done and when, which can affect everything from Nobel Prizes to Patents.

To help you see what is expected in terms of record keeping, in the introductory experiments you will be given a ‘fill in the blanks’ lab book. This starts simple and leads you through what needs to go into a lab book, what should to be noted in an experimental set up and method, how to identify important data – including the importance of what should be analysed there and then – and how to then make a series of good measurements and display them. After the introductory experiments, you will be expected to use the same ‘template’ throughout the rest of the laboratory – and lab books will contribute to your formal assessment.

Once you have performed a series of experiments you will be expected to write a report on your work. This will be in the same format as a real journal paper with title, abstract, introduction, apparatus, results and discussion and conclusions so that you get used to writing as a professional physicist from day one. A template for the reports will be provided to help with this.

Absences and deadlines

Attendance at laboratory sessions is compulsory and absences must be reported to the lab technical staff and the UG office.

Laboratory reports are required to be handed in for assessment by a specific time on a specific date. Adhering to these deadlines is essential for the system to run smoothly and penalties for late submissions are strictly imposed. You are strongly advised not to leave it to the last minute as there are frequently unexpected delays, usually with printing.

And finally… we realise that with the program of upgrades to the laboratories it is quite likely that things will go wrong in places. We ask for your help in reporting these – if equipment is malfunctioning let us know; if you think a lab script is unclear we want to hear from you. Similarly if you have an idea for how to improve labs, please don’t keep it to yourself – we do want to try to make sure that the labs are useful, relevant and actually enjoyable for all. Feel free to email either of the heads of First Year lab with your comments!