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The Picky TA's Guide to

Writing Phys 209 Lab Notebooks

Hi, I'm the TA; I'm here to make your life hell...

Well actually, I'm here to help you learn - it's just that learning can be a painful process.

This website is designed to provide you with a guide to what the picky TA in your life actually wants, so that you can give it to him/her, and thus avoid having your lab book returned to you every week with so much red splashed on the pages that it looks like it got mauled by rabid hamster.

In first year, you were probably taught a very rigid procedure for writing lab reports, where everything was broken up into distinct sections, e.g:


In Phys 209, this procedure is relaxed. We draw a distinction between a lab report and a lab notebook.

A lab report is a formal document that basically follows the same format that you learned in first year, and you will write a few of these in Physics 209.

The lab notebook - that yellow book that you write in every week - will be more like the lab notebooks that "real" scientists keep. Rather than breaking everything up into distinct and separate chunks, your lab book becomes more like a diary of the work that you did in the lab, where you record what you are doing, while you are doing it. The style is much more informal, and (provided that you turn in something that is readable, and that contains all the necessary information) you will have quite a bit of freedom to lay things out in the manner that makes the most sense to you, rather than according to a pre-existing format.

Below, you will find links to an example lab book, with comments written on it in red from the (perhaps?) fictional character known as The Picky TA. There is also a section on Mathematica output (which you may need to include with your lab books occasionally), including examples of how you should do it and how you should not do it.

What To Aim For...

Your lab notebook should be complete enough that another person could reproduce your experiment based solely on what you wrote in your lab book (i.e. they should be able to perform the experiment with no lab MANUAL).

So, for a start, you always want to begin with a list of all the equipment you used, and hopefully a diagram of how all the components fit together. This hypothetical stranger who is trying to reproduce your work would need that information.

As for what you actually write down while you're doing the experiment - you need to record what you plan to do, what you actually did do, then your data, and then you want to comment on what your data show you, or explain your data based on your understanding of the physics of the system that you're working on. What you learned in first year will still serve you, in a fashion. The lab probably naturally divides up into a series of exercises that have to be performed one after the other. So, for each one, you might consider writing an abbreviated version of the lab format you learned in first year, i.e:

    Write what you plan to do in that part of the experiment; you can think of this as a "mini-objective". It can be as short or as long as it needs to be.
    Record what you actually did; this is a bit like a "mini-procedure" section. You would include a diagram of your setup, the equipment settings, and a record of the various steps you took to prepare your equipment for data taking.
    Tabulate all your data neatly, with uncertainties and units. Make a graph if appropriate, even if you'll be doing a proper one with Mathematica later - your hand-drawn graph might help you catch a problem while you're still in the lab and can do something about it (many, many students have graphed their data several days later, only to find that it's complete garbage, and they have to redo the experiment). For every mathematical step, show at least one sample calculation in detail, and show all of your work - not just a formula and a final answer.
    Make a statement on what your results were ("mini-results" section); this is an appropriate time to say whether or not you got the results you were expecting.
    Discuss what your results mean, and explain the physics involved ("mini-conclusion").

One common problem in student lab books is when only raw data and conclusions, but no comments regarding the student's objective or their procedure, are recorded in the lab book. Not only is it poor note-taking, but if the student has to do a formal lab report on that experiment several months later, they are unlikely to be able to remember enough about what they did to write a good one.

And please note that this is a rough guide - as long as you're keeping an accurate record of what you do in the lab, then your lab book doesn't need to be exactly like what I have suggested. If you're not sure whether the way you're laying out your notebook is appropriate or not, ask the TA who will be marking it what she/he thinks.

The Example Lab Notebook

Contrary to your darkest suspicions, your TAs would rather be marking you on the quality of your understanding of physics, rather than on whether or not you remembered to write down your units or label your graph axes. So please study the example lab notebook accessed through the links below, and pay attention both to what the student writes, and to what the picky TA says about it. This will help you avoid losing marks over fussy little details.

One caveat: Although the student in the example lab does a good job of keeping a diary of her work, she's not making much of an attempt to do anything more than what the lab manual tells her to do - she doesn't demonstrate that she understands the physics. In Phys 209, you are expected to do a much better job of displaying your understanding than that. Anyone can blindly follow instructions. You're the cream of society's intellectual crop; we expect better from you.


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Ink = Good ; White-Out = Bad

In principle, your lab book is a legal document that can be used as evidence in a court of law. For example, you could use it to prove that you developed a piece of technology that someone else has illegally filed a patent on.

Thus, as you would expect for any legal document, your lab book should be written in permanent ink, not pencil, and should not have any sections that have been obscured or otherwise rendered unreadable, i.e. don't use white-out, and if you make an error, just cross it out with a single line so that what you wrote originally is still readable.