Electron band structure in Germanium, my ass

by Stephanie Chasteen on September 18, 2008

I didn’t come up with that title.  That’s the title of a lab report turned in by a disgruntled physics major after the obligatory upper-division laboratory.  It’s kinda famous in the physics circuit.  Read it.  It’s funny.

Quotable quote:

Check this shit out (Fig. 1). That’s bonafide, 100%-real data, my friends. I took it myself over the course of two weeks. And this was not a leisurely two weeks, either; I busted my ass day and night in order to provide you with nothing but the best data possible. Now, let’s look a bit more closely at this data, remembering that it is absolutely first-rate. Do you see the exponential dependence? I sure don’t. I see a bunch of crap.
Christ, this was such a waste of my time.

I just sent this link to some of my colleagues who are starting to discuss upper-division labs at the university.  What do we want students to get out of them?  What are our goals?  I love the above lab report (have you not read it yet?  Go read it!  It’s short) in part because it seems to sing the truth of what’s broken in a lot of these labs.  We give students shoddy equipment and ask them to go and confirm something that we’ve known to be true for over 100 years.  They write it up.  It’s just as cookbook as when we ask elementary students to measure the temperature of boiling water.  But don’t we expect more from students at this level?  Shouldn’t they be able to apply critical thinking skills and do true inquiry science by the time they’ve undergone hundreds of hours of instruction in physics (or any science)?  Shouldn’t they have a working thermos?

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Ben September 18, 2008 at 10:48 pm

I’m a senior scientist, and I’m lucky to get a working thermos.

Matt September 19, 2008 at 8:04 am

Ahhhh the classics.

The secret is that thermos are designed so as to not work when you need to actually measure something.

Bruce Emerson September 22, 2008 at 12:25 pm

Thanks for a great post that got me rolling on the floor on the first day of classes here at COCC. While this is overtly a discussion of upper division lab courses it seems to me that it is also a comment on the lower division lab experience as well. If the student had a more realistic lab experience at the freshman/sophmore level they might have been better prepared to cope with the realities of shakey equipment and erratic results (which are the norm in almost every research lab). I can see reframing this student’s experience as a desired learning outcome about coping with the realities of experimental physics and dump the fiction that confirmation of known results is important.

sciencegeekgirl September 22, 2008 at 12:29 pm

You’re not the only one to make this comment to me, Bruce, about the realities of dealing with equipment failure in the lab!

Boo Radley September 26, 2008 at 2:53 am

I had a real hard time as an undergrad, but I kind of persisted. Tried to figure what went wrong with the equipment, sometimes I even fixed them, or at least succeeded in explaining the deviations from expected behavior.

But in grad school, in the compulsory lab course we had, it was harder. I had some senior professor evaluating me on an experiment about which he had no clue whatsoever.

The student who preceded me had manipulated his data to show a nice fit, and I got royally screwed as a result.

Ian June 16, 2010 at 9:14 am

Results fabrication doesn’t just happen at university. I used to work in research and development at a large UK company, and we had a old test machine with a blown circuit board (it didn’t work at all). Nonetheless, it didn’t stop someone (yes, he had a PhD) from writing up a report on it, including graphs and several tables of data.

The machine was subsequently used for production work, with one modification. The mains power light was directly connected to the main switch, to make it look as if it was doing something.

The operators were supposed to write the test results on the history sheet. Initially they were told to write in any number they felt like, and later just to tick the box.

When I left the company this non-functional machine was still being used every day for production.

sciencegeekgirl June 16, 2010 at 3:47 pm

What a great story, Ian, it’s like the snake oil salesmen who had some big machine that flashed lights and looked like it was doing something. We pour money into something that looks fancy and high tech!

Ian June 21, 2010 at 2:08 pm

That was the most extreme example, but most of the processes on that site had fairly fundamental problems. For instance, most of the hotplates they used were set at the wrong temperature.

You have to bear in mind there’s a subtle difference between a process / measurement which takes time and patience, and one where the failings of the equipment constantly get in the way of getting the job done. The latter has to be designed out before the process goes into production, whereas the former is a matter of getting the right staff.

thirumalai kumar October 4, 2012 at 11:14 am

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thirumalai kumar October 4, 2012 at 11:15 am

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suganeshwaran October 4, 2012 at 11:20 am

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