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Physics Labs

Junior Lab (PHYS 3711/3721)

Junior Lab

The Experimental Physics Decathlon

The goal of the Experimental Physics Decathlon is to provide you with a laboratory experience in each of 10 major areas of physics. You will learn key ideas that shape specific topics of physics, you will use unique types of instrumentation, and you will find out how each topic is connected to ongoing research. Thus you will gain both breadth and depth in understanding the practical application of fundamental physics in the laboratory. You will also see physics as it is actually practiced in experimental research.

Junior Lab I topic areas are:

  • Mechanics (PACS 45)
  • Electromagnetism (PACS 3.50De, 41.20)
  • Thermodynamics & statistical mechanics (PACS 05 & 51)
  • Quantum mechanics (PACS 03)
  • Nuclear & elementary particle physics (PACS 10-29)

Junior Lab II topic areas are:

  • Atomic & molecular physics (PACS 30-39)
  • Physical optics & lasers (PACS 42)
  • Condensed matter physics (PACS 60-79)
  • Fluid mechanics & acoustics (PACS 47 & 43)
  • Plasma physics (PACS 52)

Your goal will be to complete one experiment in each of these areas over the two-semester span of Junior Lab. There will be three weeks for each experiment, so you will need to develop the skill of "coming up to speed" quickly. Success in this skill depends on your grasp of fundamental concepts in physics. You will find that this capability will be incredibly valuable throughout your life: the hallmark of all physicists is the ability to use fundamental knowledge to rapidly become productive in new areas of work. Your completion of the experimental physics decathlon will show future employers or graduate school advisors that you possess this hallmark trait.

Optional Further Study

Later, we intend to develop experiments for optional further study in the following areas, perhaps during summer session:

The cross-disciplinary physics triathlon:
  • Chemical, polymer & nano physics (82, 83)
  • Biophysics & medical physics (PACS 87)
  • Geophysics & environmental physics (PACS 91-93)

Finally, we hope to convince some of our colleagues to develop:

The astronomy pentathlon
  • Optical astronomy
  • Radio astronomy
  • Infrared astronomy
  • Ultraviolet astronomy
  • X-ray, gamma ray & cosmic ray astronomy

Historical Background

As a matter of historical background, here are the sporting events in the Olympic decathlon.

The Olympic decathlon
Day 1 Day 2
100 meters 110 meter hurdle
Long jump Discus
Shotput Pole vault
High jump Javelin
400 meters 1500 meters

For more information, visit where you will find the follwing quote:

"The decathlon has its ancestry in the Ancient Greek Games and reveals the Greek model of a balanced, all-around athlete."

Our goal with the experimental physics decathlon is to achieve a similar idea of balanced, all-around knowledge and skills.

American Physical Society Divisions

You may also find it interesting to see how the American Physical Society is organized into major divisions. For more information, visit

The list is not a one-to-one match with the Physics Decathlon topics, but this is not necessary since some of the topics are so fundamental (e.g. mechanics) that they span many divisions.

  • Astrophysics (DAP)
  • Atomic, molecular & optical physics (DAMOP) 
  • Biological physics (DBP)
  • Chemical physics (DCP)
  • Computational physics (DCOMP)
  • Condensed matter physics (DCMP)
  • Fluid dynamics (DFD)
  • Polymer physics (DPOLY)
  • Laser science (DLS)
  • Materials physics (DMP)
  • Nuclear physics (DNP)
  • Particles and fields (DPF)
  • Physics of beams (DPB)
  • Plasma physics (DPP)

Specific Experiments

The goals of each experiment or "event" in the Physics Decathlon are:

  • Connect fundamental physics to one or more advanced concepts in the specific topic.
  • Employ a key type of advanced instrumentation.
  • Demonstrate good practice in laboratory procedure and notebook-keeping.
  • Rigorously apply appropriate methods of data analysis.
  • Reach conclusions that connect to current research.
  • Provide a foundation for application of physics in your later career.
  • To begin with, we will offer one experiment in each area.
  • Later, we intend to offer a choice of experiments, and we invite Senior Lab students to help us develop alternative experiments. (See more on this below.)
Junior Lab I currently offered experiments

Mechanics: Mechanical resonance in a driven oscillator

Electricity & magnetism: Electric impedance spectroscopy

Thermodynamics & statistical mechanics: Isotherms near the gas-liquid critical point

Quantum mechanics: Photoelectric effect

Nuclear & elementary particle physics: Gamma ray spectroscopy from nuclear decays

Junior Lab II currently offered experiments

Atomic & molecular physics: Optical spectra of atomic hydrogen

Physical optics & lasers: Optical diffraction patterns

Condensed matter physics: Hall effect

Fluid mechanics & acoustics: Hydrodynamic instabilities & turbulence in the Taylor-Couette experiment

Plasma physics: Langmuir probes