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Why Labs Should (if possible) be Taught by Experimentalists

Unperceptive theorist: “The next  teacher we hire should be a theorist since theorists know about labs.

Socrates: "Yah, right, they may have heard of labs!"

Most of the items on the list of what can be taught in science labs are not of much (or any) concern to theorists. A theorist typically will simply not know many tricks of the trade, will not be suspicious of theory, will not know (or care) what the current tools of the discipline are, will not have much interest in (or knowledge of) experimental design, and will not want students to go off on their own trying things the teacher doesn't understand.

An exceptional theorist may educate themselves to all these nuances of experiments. Most theorists, however, will simply avoid things they are not familiar with and repeat the experiments they did in high school (complete with "Plug and Chug" analysis) or follow the canned instructions from some scientific supply company.

Typically in physics, theorists and experimentalists take the same theory courses through the masters degree level, and often beyond. However generally theorists have no laboratory experience in graduate school and, depending on the school, little laboratory experience past the sophomore year. In most of the world even this little laboratory experience is very crude by US standards. Thus, although they may have a physics Ph.D., the theorist is probably almost entirely ignorant of experimental theory and practice.

Thoughts from other fields:

Would you rather learn to do a double back flip from a physicist who is expert in conservation of energy and angular momentum, or from a slightly educated but experienced gymnast?

Would you rather learn welding from that same physicist who is also fluent with Maxwell’s equations, heat flow, and solid state theory or from a welder who has actually earned their living welding?

Are you safer using lasers under the direction of this very versatile theorist who can easily explain the quantum mechanics of energy levels or from a technician who has experience in the many tricks to keeping dangerous laser light out of your eyes?

What if, however, YOU are the theorist?

Then you have a lot of interesting things to learn!  Since teaching in general and labs in particular are as much art as science, it may serve well to apprentice yourself to an experienced teacher.  Particularly effective is if your lab can be scheduled a week after the lab you observe so you have plenty of time to consider what you observed.

Please keep in mind that just because you (with your superb theoretical training) don’t know something (yet), you can’t assume it is of no use to anyone and should be ignored.  Experimentalists (those who deal with the real world) need an astonishing variety of experiences and tools.

Perspective: I was hired fresh out of college with a masters in physics, quite theoretical.  The company evidently didn’t know there were both experimental and theoretical physicist and that the theoretical type know nothing of the real world.  The company’s plan was for me to assemble and run an ion accelerator in support of ion rockets.  The experimental apparatus involved ion sources, accelerating and focusing ion beams, a mass spectrograph, a high vacuum system, cryogenic pumping, . . .  I know nothing of the practical side of any of this.  However I quickly read every issue of the journal devoted to vacuum systems, every paper I could find on ion rockets, and probably every paper on the particular aspect we were investigating.  I shamelessly leaned on my technicians, the shop, the designers, and anyone I could find for practical knowledge.  Rather to my surprise all this newfound knowledge actually worked, eventually!  Still, to this day decades later, I regularly find out experimental tricks of the trade that I should have known then.  Some of these “tricks” would have immensely increased the safety of all of us working around the equipment.


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