Sofia: A VIP in the physics lab
In this post, I talk about experimental physics and how a visually impaired student can get through undergraduate (and postgraduate) physics labs.
One of the things I miss while working with theoretical physics is having a warning sign on my door that says 'Warning: Laser' or 'Warning: Radiation!'. I liked seeing them when I walked into the lab, they made me feel cool. Let me start this off by talking briefly about experimental physics as a topic, and then move into the specifics of doing labs as a VIP.
Understanding the nature and procedure of experiments is a fundamental part of any empirical science. Without experiment, theories would be mathematical theories only. It is through the correspondence between experiments and predictions where the truth-content of a physical theory is establish.
Hence, all physics students have to perform at least some experiments, including a VIP like me. When I started my degree and began discussing various aspects of the course with the university support staff, they all expected me to take part in the experiments, which I appreciated. Some of the labs were undoubtedly challenging, but I ultimately enjoyed it and had some good fun. I picked up a few useful things on the way, which I'm going to tell you about here. Let me start with the undergraduate labs, and then note just a few things about postgraduate labs.
Most labs contain a number of elements. There is setting up the equipment, adjusting it, performing measurements, recording the measurements and (the usually quite boring part) computing the errors. If you've done everything correctly, you will have a nice graph or final number that conforms nicely with experiments. Undergraduate labs range from simple investigations of oscilloscope signals from a light sensor, to calculations of Newtons gravitational constant or on the scattering angle of alpha-particles.
Labs are usually performed with a partner. This has been very helpful to me, but I did also do some labs on my own (I'll come to that later). Having a partner meant that we could divide the workload between myself and the other (sighted) student. While my partner carried out the tasks that require good eyesight, such as aligning a laser or reading off a micrometer (this devices is used for very precise measurements and is essentially a screw gauge), I noted down measurement data and performed various calculations. Time is limited in an undergraduate lab, so this division of labour occurs quite naturally. Only in my case, I would generally end up
with the more analytic tasks. Although my partner performed the measurements, I still made sure that I knew how the experiment functioned and that I was aware of how the measurement was performed.
A standard micrometer (picture credit: Wikipedia).
Preparing for the lab
If the module is well-organised, the lab script will usually be available in advance. Whenever I had enough time to do so (sometimes it was difficult due to the additional workload of courses and problem sheets), I would read the script and think about what might be tricky for me to do. When you do this, try and visualise the various tasks and ask yourself where you might encounter difficulties and how you might solve them. Will you be looking at tiny resistor markings? If so, can you bring a magnifying glass? Can you see the controls of the oscilloscope, and if not, how will you learn them?
One important thing is: try not to wing it. Sometimes when I'm feeling lazy, I tell myself that i didn't really need to see those slides in the presentation (I just forgot to bring my binoculars), or you didn't see what your partner wrote in their book because you didn't want to be creepy and lean to close to them. It's very easy in physics just to nod and pretend you understand something, simply because you don't have the energy to make that information available to you. Every time you have to remind someone or make an effort to overcome a challenge, it's like a tiny hurdle of energy you have to overcome. This is sometimes very hard, but when doing a degree you are spending time and money in a place that is optimised for your learning. Try and take advantage of this. Even though it's hard, make the extra effort to learn as much as you can during this time. It will be worth it!
Let me make a short note about communication as well. Sometimes partners are randomly assigned, so it's very important here to be open and talk about your visual impairment if the other student doesn't already know you. Explain what you can and can't do, and make sure you offer take on your fair share of work - there will usually be a lot to do in labs! For example, if you don't think you will be able to contribute much to the lab in question, read up on the theory so that you can help your partner understand what you are doing.
As I mentioned above, I also did perform some experiments on my own. There was this optional course called 'short experiments' in my first year. I was interested in experimental physics, and the alternative was a pure maths course, which I thought utterly dull (I might well have chosen differently today). For this short experiments course, I asked the lab technicians if I could perform them on my own, without a partner. I wanted to see if I could do it, and thought this would be the ideal opportunity.
Now I had to take all the readings myself, so I had to figure out a way to see the values on the micrometer. It turned out the most useful item I brought with me into the lab was my phone. I downloaded an app that let me use the camera in the phone like a magnifying glass. By resting the phone above the experiment and zooming in on the micrometer gauge, I was able to read the values and adjust the experiment. I was also able to borrow a magnifying glass from the lab supervisors which came in handy when looking at the tiny colour code of resistors.
The lab technicians and postdocs overseeing the labs also offered to help me when there was something I couldn't do. I believe there were a few times when I did ask them for help, but largely I was able to complete the experiments on my own. Note that this is by no means necessary, and I would probably have learnt more had I worked with someone else for those labs too. Nevertheless, it was an interesting challenge.
Stepping it up - postgraduate labs
Those were the undergraduate labs. Let me now make a few points about postgraduate labs. As part of my education, I did a masters in quantum technologies (on h ow the smallest building blocks of nature can be utilised in technologies) which contained three state-of-the-art experiments. These included measuring spins in a magnetic fields, manufacturing a device in a cleanroom and testing it, and performing quantum key distribution using linear optics.
PhD student conducting an optics experiment in the Quantum Technology Laboratory at the University of Queensland.
Since quantum physics studies the very smallest of objects, such as individual particles, you could say that the experimental side of things wasn't really optimal for me. As a result, there were moments of the labs which I could not do, such as using a microscope to bond some very fine wire from a base to a chip. Even though I tried my best, the wire simply would not go where I wanted it to. Still, it was interesting to see how it's done.
Each of these more advanced labs required more preparation on my part. A few weeks before each of them, I scheduled a meeting with the academic who had designed the lab and who would supervise it. We talked it over and tried to identify what components I might find difficult. Since I had already decided to become a theorist, my main purpose was to learn how experiments are performed and what elements need to be considered. I didn't necessarily have to be good at performing them myself.
The most interesting of these experiments involved fabricating a tiny device in a cleanroom. A cleanroom uses filters and requires the wearing of special suits to reduce the number of particles in the air to a whopping low 12 particles per cubic metre of air. As a comparison, city air contains about 35,000,000 particles per cubic metre! (source: Wikipedia). The experiment involved dipping a piece of silicon in acid to burn away a specific pattern we needed for the experiment. Before we started, the lab technician put together an individual risk-assessment for me. This mainly had to do with the acid, which was a greater risk for me because I need to get close to see. You don't really want to get closer to concentrated acid, so that task was consigned to my lab partners.
So while I wasn't able to do everything in the lab, the learning experience has been extremely valuable to me. Most importantly, it left me with a deep admiration for what experimental physicists to - their job is often tricky and highly unintuitive (I wouldn't know how to fix an experiment that randomly breaks… would you?).
To summarise, the most important points I wish to convey here are the following. Firstly, prepare as much as you can for the labs. Try and visualise where you might face difficulty, then ask yourself how you might be able to overcome that. Sometimes this is not possible, but then ask how you might learn as much as possible from it. Secondly, practise communicating your needs to the university and the support staff. This can sometimes be very hard, since perhaps you don't know yourself how well you will be able to do the labs. Be open to experimentation (pun intended), try new things. Ultimately, everyone at the university is there to try and make you a better physicist. There are many ways in which you can become an excellent scientist. Finally, trust in and appreciate the help your lab partner provides .I was lucky to have a really nice and helpful partner who was happy with our setup.
I learned a lot while doing labs and generally enjoyed them (apart from the lab report deadlines). Performing experiments are a key part of physics, and even though I might only ever visit the lab as a guest in the future, I will always appreciate the importance of empirical investigations and the skills required to do so. At the time of writing, I am actually working on an experimental proposal together with an experimentalist. We hope to implement a theoretical proposal that I completed earlier this year. Hopefully all the time spent in the lab will now finally pay off!