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What is a Physics Lab?

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  • Written By: Jessica Hobby
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 09 December 2016
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Discoveries made in science are done so through the process of experimentation. Physics, which is the study of energy and matter, is no different. Knowledge that furthers the science of physics is gained through following the scientific method, which includes performing experiments to prove a hypothesis. Most often these experiments are performed in a physics laboratory, more commonly called a physics lab. Physics labs are also used by students who learn about the science through demonstration in a physics lab.

Physics is primarily concerned with how motion, light, heat and force interact with energy and matter, so a physics lab has a variety of instruments used to conduct these kinds of experiments. They are usually equipped with items for weight and measure, such as glass beakers, test tubes and scales. Besides weight and measure items, there are numerous other items used, such as heat lamps, lenses, magnets, inclined planes, balls, pendulums and any kind of item that a scientist needs to perform his experiment.

The disciplines within the broad umbrella of physics are optics, electricity and magnetism, mechanics, acoustics, nuclear and modern physics, and thermodynamics. Within these disciplines there are more than 20 sub-disciplines, such as astrophysics, biophysics, geophysics and nuclear physics. Because of this broad range, a physics lab may also have more sophisticated equipment, such as spectroscopes, electromagnets, telescopes and microscopes.

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The design and function of a physics lab has changed throughout the years. With the invention of computers and highly sophisticated computer software, modern physics labs allow scientists to run complicated computer simulations as part of laboratory experiments. Computer simulations give a scientist the tools to simulate real events, unlike a traditional laboratory experiment which will only simulate concepts that need real world application to make sense. The simulations are run by creating accurate mathematical models of events which can be studied.

The use of computer simulations has created a dichotomy in the field of physics. Those who use the simulations to prove their hypotheses are called theoretical physicists, while those who choose to perform classical physics experiments in a physics lab are called experimental physicists. Until the 21st century, experimental physicists have had the most success, but as technology grows, computer models and simulations have become more accurate, helping theoretical physicists have more success. Even though there are two schools of thought, they are both important to the advancement of physics, because many times an experimentalist will find unexplained phenomena which can be explained by collaboration with a theorist.

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andee
Post 6

I think physics is one of those areas that you either get or you don't. My mind has a hard time comprehending all the formulas and reasoning that goes into physics.

The thought of spending my time in a physics lab surrounded by beakers, test tubes and scales just doesn't sound appealing to me at all.

One of my friends has a son who has always been interested in physics. His mind naturally thinks that way, and his goal is to become a nuclear physicist.

He certainly has the intelligence and grades to pursue this career. I am glad there are people who are talented in this area, as they make a lot of important contributions and discoveries.

Mykol
Post 5

@LisaLou - It sounds like you were an experimental physicist and didn't even know it. I can see how a balance between experimental and theoretical physics would be beneficial.

On one hand, it seems like the advanced computer software programs would be able to save a lot of time and money. There are many experiments that you could figure out the answer for just by entering the figures into a computer program.

On the other hand, there is nothing quite like actually doing the experiment. By using both of these approaches, there have been some interesting advancements made in the physics field.

A physics lab today probably looks much different than one did many years ago. The current technology and computer equipment must take up a big part of the lab that would not have been there when I was in school taking physics.

LisaLou
Post 4

My son is currently taking a physics class online. I know you can take most classes online today, but I think physics would be a hard one when it comes to conducting experiments. This class is an AP physics class he is taking while still in high school.

I don't remember much about physics, but do remember one experiment we conducted. This wasn't done inside the lab, but outside on top of a balcony.

Our project was to design a way to keep an egg from breaking when dropped from a tall building. This incorporated the concepts of motion and energy we had been studying in class.

I ended up wrapping my egg in foam and making

sure it was secure. When I tried this at home, it did not break, but I wasn't up in the air that high.

When we all tried this during class, my egg broke so my theory didn't work very well. We were also standing at a higher elevation. Most of the people in the class had eggs that broke and didn't survive the fall.

Of all the things I learned in that physics class, that experiment is the one thing that sticks out in my mind more than anything.

John57
Post 3
When I was in college, physics was a required class as part of my degree program. This was my first introduction to physics and it wasn't easy for me. Math classes never came easy for me and I had a hard time understanding all of the formulas.

My instructor kept telling us we needed to memorize the formulas and plug in the numbers. I didn't have any trouble with the memorizing part, but just didn't grasp the concept of each different formula.

We had a small physics lab where we could conduct a few experiments, but this was not where I would choose to spend any hours outside of class. Some of my classmates were absolutely fascinated with this, and would spend extra time working in the physics lab.

They probably received a higher grade than I did, but I was able to pass the class, and that is what mattered most to me at the time.

browncoat
Post 2

@KoiwiGal - There are definitely overlaps between physics and mathematics but I would not say that all mathematics is concerned with physics.

Pure number theories might have nothing to do with mass and energy.

Computers have enabled us to do amazing things with physics that we've never been able to achieve before. Although it's true that we were always able to expand on the values we found from experiments, most of the time we had to slot in theoretical values because there was no way for a human to calculate what the actual values should be.

That said, the sophisticated machines they've come up with recently have also revolutionized physics. Think about the hadron collider, for example. That's basically a massive physics experiment, concerned with learning the nature of matter.

For that kind of physics lab equipment, you need amazing computers as well.

KoiwiGal
Post 1

I think that theoretical physics was always possible. I mean, really there's such a fine line between physics and mathematics really, so you could argue that any mathematics is really theoretical physics.

And people have been working on mathematics for a long, long time, long before there were computers to help them.

Granted, not all of it could be applied directly to the things that physics are directly concerned with, like energy and mass, but most of it could be applied at least indirectly.

Physics lab experiments are needed to establish guidelines for some values like speed and so forth, but aside from that I think a lot of it can be theoretical.

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