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Surviving Physics Experiments

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This is a guide to surviving first year labs at a university. The strategies herein can be applied to other fields should the need arise.

Something to note is that Newton was in fact wrong, there is an inertial reference frame where the laws of physics are inconsistent, and it is called the first year lab.

Experiment Build-up

The powers that be have given you a script1 and told you to check on the noticeboard to see which experiment you have to do first. They have also told you to go and buy a lab book2 for you to write up the experiment in.

This is a good sign, it shows that they are expecting you. Now try to find a lab book. Bear in mind that most stationery shops don't sell them, so you need to go somewhere small and obscure, preferably in a back street, to buy one. Remember your lab book needs to be able to survive the rigours of experiments.

Have you checked the noticeboard yet? You may notice that someone else is either doing the experiment with you, or is doing the same one as you. This is good. Find that person, and agonise with them about how nervous you are and try and make them nervous too. This is very important for the success of your experiment, as you do not want someone around conspicuously doing better than you.

Next, and this is very important: do not, under any circumstances, try to read the lab script before you do the experiment. Reading scripts before entering the lab leads to all sorts of bad feelings such as self doubt, panic, hypochondria... don't do it. If possible, discourage your partner as well.

Performing the Experiment

Then the time arrives, you have to go to the lab.

Don't panic

Although all of those... uh... things3 on the bench look strange to you, it's going to be fine. Take a deep breath, and open your script.

Miraculously, all of these things will not become understandable when you read the script. This is okay too. Take it slowly, skip the theory, and try to work out exactly which bit in the picture matches which bit on the table. Ask your partner, if you have one. Hopefully, they will be equally mystified. After staring for a while, one of you may work out what is what. At this point again you may be tempted to panic, so much to do, so little time... don't. It's okay. Since almost all labs do not work, you need to find the flaw with this one. What is it that doesn't align correctly? Are you seeing two Sodium D lines where there should only be one? Get the demonstrator4. They will hopefully know as little about this as you. Keep asking them questions like 'does it help if I do this?' or 'should it look like that?' Try to involve your partner, too. This hopefully will slow the demonstrator down, but eventually they will find a way of letting you do at least some form of your experiment.

After all of the above, you'll only have enough time left to do the easy readings. Take them, go and be glad.

Writing up your Experiment

Finally, you have to write your experiment up. Leave this until the night before you have to hand it in, you'll waste, sorry, spend less time on it this way. One problem. Your results are incomplete. But you have to say that it didn't work properly. And it wasn't your fault. This is good thing as you do not have much data to analyze, and you have covered the fact that you may not have been able to take the readings properly anyway. Hand it in with a sigh of relief; one down, 11 more left.

1Instructions for doing the experiment, usually including a diagram bearing little to no resemblance to the actual experiment set up and some impossibly complicated theory as well as the instructions themselves. For some unknown reason, these books are almost always bound in yellow.2Blank book with half the pages lined and the other half graph paper.3Objects often include randomized wires, boxes, lasers, chemicals labelled hazardous...4Person holding position of responsibility in the lab, ie if you blow something up they get in very deep trouble, assuming they didn't die in the explosion that is.

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