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I hate experimental physics

  1. Mar 25, 2014 #1
    So I am almost done with my physics degree and I am taking a physics lab class this semester.

    I hate it. I don't learn anything on it. 90% of the time we're just working to get the equipment to function correctly and the other 10% deciphering the lab instructions.

    I resorted to just making up reasonable data points because I see no value in doing these manual experiments.

    Anyone else feel the same?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 25, 2014 #2
    Absolutely not. It is bad science to just make up data. The point of the labs is to throw you into the fray so that you could learn to work on your own with out someone holding your hand.
     
  4. Mar 25, 2014 #3

    wukunlin

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    You don't learn anything? Getting equipment to function correctly and understanding cryptic instructions is essential for just about all kinds of sciences.
     
  5. Mar 25, 2014 #4
    Sounds exactly like my other major, computer science, and I love programming. :tongue:
     
  6. Mar 25, 2014 #5
    How have you gotten to be "almost done with [your] physics degree" and still be "making up reasonable data points"?

    Seems bizarre to me...I wouldn't have passed my very first course by doing that!
     
  7. Mar 25, 2014 #6
    Because the labs are only a small fraction of the requirements. I also hated the lab component of my first year's physics courses.
     
  8. Mar 25, 2014 #7
    but the experimental part is the best part of the whole thing.It is when you actually apply what you've learned

    cb
     
  9. Mar 25, 2014 #8
    No comment...
     
  10. Mar 25, 2014 #9

    Choppy

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    One criticism of the educational system (at least in north America) I have is that labs are generally taught in a cookbook fashion. Students read the manual, perform steps one through twenty two, write up their results and hand in a report for grading. Carnivroar, I suspect that you've come through a system like this.

    Then, when you get into your senior lab, your instructions are purposefully vague and you're left out in the cold, wondering what to do.

    Many schools keep the lab instructions purposefully vague because the point is that for a senior course, you really should be setting up the experiment yourself. That's not very fair when up until this point you've been repeatedly rewarded for avoiding any deviations from instructions.

    It's no wonder you're developing a dislike for the course. I think a lot of students experience this kind of frustration. You should make sure that you give critical (but constructive) feedback to your department on it.

    The other issue of course is the basic struggle with getting things to work - figuring out equipment you're not familiar with or that may or may not be in working condition, accounting for phenomena that aren't expected in the theory, etc. I would argue that you're actually learning a lot in such situations. Even the patience for dealing with things that don't work the way you expect them to is a valuable skill.

    And at the end of the day, it's one course. Get as much as you can out of it. Don't make up data. And at the very least you've learned that you're really not cut out for experimental work. It's better to learn that now than two years into a PhD.
     
  11. Mar 25, 2014 #10

    ZapperZ

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    Please note that there is a distinct difference between "I hate experimental physics" and "I hate the experiments for my classes at school".

    Confusing the two may affect your ability for a reasonable chance at employment in physics, y'know, the thing that you do to make a living after you get out of school.

    Zz.
     
  12. Mar 25, 2014 #11

    That's totally a comment. :)
     
  13. Mar 25, 2014 #12

    Vanadium 50

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    I agree with everything Choppy said. One more thing to think about - do you really want your letters of recommendation to say "When the going gets tough....he makes up data."?
     
  14. Mar 25, 2014 #13
    So is it completely unheard of that real physicists hate doing labs?

    I thought there was a big gap between theoretical and experimental physics, and that sometimes they don't overlap too well.

    I hate doing these labs because they amount to nothing more than getting the correct equipment set up correctly in order to obtain accurate data. What is the point?

    What is the value in looking at tiny oil particles floating between two capacitors and trying not to blink so you don't lose sight of it? And then using the stopwatch to time the thing accurately. Or twisting some nob SOOOO SLOWLY AND CAREFULLY and at the same time counting how many light fringes go by, and then losing count of it because they're too many at once.

    This is just manual labor involving patience, hand and eye coordination and quick reflexes.

    Like I said - I am a computer science major so I have plenty of experience, academic and professional, in spending time just getting trivial stuff to work - and I love programming. But this physics lab is stressing me out.

    Choppy: it's exactly as you said, and we're left alone to do the labs by ourselves, there is no instructor present in class. If that helps justify my feelings.
     
    Last edited: Mar 25, 2014
  15. Mar 26, 2014 #14
    I found when I did my UK Physics Degree that someone's school experimental background counted for a lot. Some of our guys could get right into the labs straight away as they had done a lot of this in high school, ie they had good physics teachers right from the start.

    I had to make do with some guy who had an electronics background but not a physics degree so all labs in optics, thermodynamics and mechanics were not explained well nor did they work well. UK schools still have problems putting actual physics grads into teaching physics. This is where the labwork suffers.

    At Uni I struggled to make headway with the labs and although I wanted to be good at them I never really caught up, and we were left sometimes with very little instructions to go on. So Carnivroar that's maybe why you're finding the lab such hard going, you maybe have little background in doing this kind of work.

    I enjoyed the degree but never wanted to work in Physics anyway. If I'd wanted to go on to grad school the experimental stuff would have hammered me.
     
  16. Mar 26, 2014 #15

    ZapperZ

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    Something isn't quite right here.

    Zz.
     
  17. Mar 26, 2014 #16

    StatGuy2000

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    The OP is double-majoring in physics and computer science (see post #4).
     
  18. Mar 26, 2014 #17

    StatGuy2000

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    Choppy,

    I'm curious as to how lab courses are typically taught in other science programs such as chemistry (which also rely heavily on labs), since the issues you point out regarding how lab courses are taught are just as applicable to these other fields as it would be to physics. That is, most lab courses in most sciences will typically involve reading a manual, perform each steps, write up the results and submit the report.

    Your post also raises the question of just how lab courses should be taught for the students to take the most value out of them. Because one could argue that before students are able to set up an experiment effectively and safely by themselves, they need to practice on the basics of lab work, which involves the rote or routine steps outlined in a "cookbook" fashion. Whether this assertion is correct or not is worth exploring.
     
  19. Mar 26, 2014 #18

    Choppy

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    Hi StatGuy2000,

    I don't claim to have any easy answers in this respect, unfortunately.

    I suspect that chemistry labs are run very much the same way (although I've never done a senior level chemistry lab).

    And you're right. Safety and learning basic skills (not to mention the conservation of expensive lab equipment) are of critical importance and that's usually best accomplished through prescribed procedures.

    I think part of the trick to improving things will come through engagment (one of those buzzwords) - or figuring out a way to keep the students' minds fully engaged during the labs starting out early on. There are some things at the first year level that don't require a cookbook and so you could provide procedures "when necessary." One example that comes to mind perhaps is giving students a weight, a string, something to hang it from, and a stopwatch and then simply instruct them to measure the local acceleration due to gravity. In such an example you're less likely to have complaints about "why do I have to watch this thing move back and forth ten times" (analogous to some of the complaints raised above) and instead inspire questions along the lines of "how may periods are sufficient to derive the result to a precsion I'm happy with?"

    One issue with setting up labs like that, of course, is time. Having done several years as a TA, I'm well aware that students will tend to push whatever time limit you give them.
     
  20. Mar 26, 2014 #19

    Choppy

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    That's another issue that's worth bringing to the attention of your department. Students working unsupervised could be a safety issue.
     
  21. Mar 26, 2014 #20

    vela

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    I have to admit, this made me laugh. The point is to get good data, and you've come to realize that it's not exactly easy to do.
     
  22. Mar 26, 2014 #21
    Well I think it's pretty obvious how experiments are important to science. Maybe you don't like the particular experiment but I think that can't be helped at undergraduate level. I sometimes don't like labs myself but I shouldn't see it that way. It's a time to practice lab skills, something I will really need later on.

    Try to see the value in it maybe that will make it more enjoyable. Hard data is the only thing we have towards understanding the external world. The rest is just our own imagination and rationalizing. Under the right view it can be exciting
     
  23. Mar 27, 2014 #22

    Hepth

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    This is something I've seen multiple times now, and I think it has to do with the current generation(ages 15-35) and their expectations. I'm in this group but somehow avoided this pattern:

    There is an expectation that if they are being told to do a job/project/experiment, then that is what 100% of their effort should go toward. I've had students, and even my wife with her job, constantly complain about how they can't get their work done because some apparatus or software doesn't work properly, or is too difficult to use, and how they expect that to accomplish the task all the tools work correctly.

    I am usually bewildered as I fully expect nothing to ever work, and 99% of my job is getting the tools to function. I mean even now, I've spent months trying to get some numerical integrals to work in order to get a result from my physics calculations. I could whine and say "its not fair that mathematica has a bug, or my computer is too slow, or I'm not a programmer I shouldn't spend all my time programming" when in reality, if the tools were easy to use you wouldn't be needed.

    Your "job" is to do anything to get to the "goal", not to walk across the field and stand in the endzone.
     
  24. Mar 27, 2014 #23
    As others have said, that is exactly why you are taking the lab. A friend of mine spent his entire senior year trying to get one single experiment to work. He finished it during his grad work.

    I also hate doing labs. I majored in math and physics and I never felt comfortable in lab and, despite having very good lab classes, never really liked it. But I came to every class and tried to get good data and when I couldn't I tried to figure out why. Sometimes my lab reports just discussed all of the possible reasons that my data was unreliable and how I knew that it was unreliable. I personally don't enjoy labs either, but it is extremely important even if you are not going to become an experimental physicist. If it weren't for experimental physics, I would have had a single major.
     
  25. Mar 27, 2014 #24
    So we have to write a lab report on the precision interferometer. I am writing a program in Java to analyze the data and I'm having a lot of fun with it - I'm pretty sure I'm the only person doing it this way because I'm the only CS major there. Writing the functions to do the data analysis is also much more efficient, instead of doing the calculations manually like others are doing. Plotting the data and interpreting it is also interesting to me.

    Now doing the dirty job of conducting the experiments is NOT MY THING!!!
     
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