Formal Lab Report

You are required to write a formal report on one experiment you performed during the semester.  This report will be in the format of a scientific journal article.  An example journal that might be helpful is the American Journal of Physics; this journal often contains articles which describe experiments suitable for undergraduate laboratory courses.  I have linked to a few examples below.  Please read these only to get a general feel for the tone of the journal articles, and the level at which the material is presented.  Do not try to emulate one article exactly. 

"Measurements of the horizontal coefficient of restitution for a superball and a tennis ball", Rod Cross, Am. J. Phys. 70, 482 (2002).

"One-dimensional laser cooling of an atomic beam in a sealed vapor cell", C. J. Vale, M. R. Walkiewicz, P. M. Farrell, and R. E. Scholten, Am. J. Phys. 70, 71 (2002).

"Ferroelectricity: Measurement of the dielectric susceptibility of strontium titanate at low temperatures", Matthew Trainer, Am. J. Phys. 69, 966 (2001).

"A simple experiment for measuring the surface tension of soap solutions", F. L. Roman, J. Faro, and S. Velasco, Am. J. Phys. 69, 920 (2001).

"A closer look at tumbling toast", M. E. Bacon, George Heald, and Matt James, Am. J. Phys. 69, 38 (2001).

"Demonstration of surface plasmons in metal island films and the effect of the surrounding medium—An undergraduate experiment", P. Orfanides, T. F. Buckner, and M. C. Buncick, F. Meriaudeau, and T. L. Ferrell, Am. J. Phys. 68, 936 (2000).


General Information
Your papers should be well organized, neat, concise and written in English. Each paper should include at least 4 sections — Abstract, Introduction, Experiment, and Results. In some cases you will want to have a Theory and/or a Discussion section but, only include sections that are necessary to make your point. Papers with more than one clearly delineated experiment should contain more than one Experimental section, titled appropriately.  In most cases you will want to have a References section.  The abstract and introduction are extremely important because they set the tone of the paper; you will capture or lose your reader in these two sections. Consequently, you should spend some time carefully crafting these sections. The abstract should give information only — no lead-in no discussion. Here is an example:


The A-technique was employed to measured the B-parameter in System C. Under conditions D, we find values for the B-parameter of ____. These values imply _____.

The introduction is where you should give enough information for a reasonably well educated physicist to understand why this paper should be read. Specifically, you should include information regarding how what you have measured is related, in some broad sense, to science and why such a measurement is important to a particular local area of physics. As an example, in the Mössbauer experiment, the hyperfine splitting of specific nuclear states are measured whereby the effects of chemistry on nuclear structure can be investigated. This is interesting because we usually think of chemistry as an electronic effect involving the valence electrons and thus perturbing only the atomic structure. If this is the first time or a novel approach for such a measurement it should be so stated. If you are testing a theoretical prediction or verifying a previous measurement this should also be stated. In some cases you will need to review some of the theory or background to the area. This should not be done in the introduction but in a separate section. In the introduction you can direct the reader to sections where the theory is reviewed. You may simply say: This paper is organized into ___ sections. In Sec. II we present the relevant theory necessary to interpret our measurement, in Sec. III we describe the instrumentation, ...

Body of the Paper
Here is where you tell your story. You first must explain your instrumentation and the experiment. Be sure to include in your descriptions all the conditions under which your experiments were performed, e. g., PMT voltages, temperatures, pressures, etc. You should give enough information that someone else should be able to repeat your experiments. In addition, if your results need to be compared to another's, apples will be able to be compared with apples. Finally, since these are experimental papers, a long and tedious calculation or derivation should appear in an appendix.

  1. Abbreviations
  2. Figure:                 Fig.
    Reference:           Ref.
    Degree Kelvin:    K
    Degree Celsius:   °C

  3. Figures

  4. Each figure should have a descriptive caption. One should be able to look at a figure and discern its meaning without reading the text. For example, captions for a spectrum in the ultrasound experiment in liquids should state the substance, driving frequency and temperature under which the spectrum was obtained. Within a figure, labels should be in all caps. Sometimes it is helpful to give a figure a title, but not always. Do not substitute a screen dump for a figure.

  5. Tables

  6. Tables also should be made with care. Sometimes you will want to include a table caption to explain table heading or footnotes to explain table entries.

When necessary, you must properly cite previous works.  Some citations may be found in the lab manual.  Also be sure to cite Melissinos or other texts if you make use of specific techniques from them.  You do not need to cite equipment manuals.

The suggested format of the paper is that outlined in the AIP Style Manual for journal submissions.  Place the title, author, address, and abstract on the first page. Follow with the body of the paper, then the references, tables (one to a page), figure captions, and figures (one to a page).  This is the standard format that scientists use when preparing a manuscript for publication.  You may wish to format your paper to look more like the print version of a journal article, but you do not have to do this.

Start with the figures (and tables).  When people read journal articles, they typically look at the figures first.  Your figures should tell a complete story from beginning to end; you should have enough figures to convey all the information you want to convey, but no more.  Next write the body around the figures.  Make clear segues when you change topics.  Often you will want to start a new paragraph with "Figure 2 shows the signal from the PMT tube..." or "Table 1 lists the results of the analysis procedure ...".  This is helpful for readers who are looking for a point of reference in the text.  Spend some time on the title and abstract.  Both should be as concise as possible while conveying the importance of the paper.

Papers are graded according to the following six categories.

Category Points
Abstract & Title 10
Introduction/Background 10
Theory/Instrumentation/Experiment 20
  • interpretation
  • errors
Figures and Tables 20
  • organization
  • neatness/syntax/spelling
  • clarity