PHYS 425/525: Modern Optics Laboratory (Spring 2005)

Instructor: Daniel A. Steck (with help from Steve Gregory)
Office: 277 Willamette      Phone: 346-5313      email:
Office hours: by appointment or drop-in
Course home page:

Schedule: TTh 5:15-8:15 pm, 12 Willamette (Optics Teaching Laboratory)
Course reference number: 38650 (425); 38651 (525)
Credits: 4
Prerequisites: none

Links: news, module documentation and assignments, presentation schedule.

Course overview

In this course you will learn optics the hands-on way, complementing the mathematical approach from last term. Modules ranging from geometrical optics to holography to basic photonic devices will give you a broad exposure to optical components as well as general laboratory techniques.

Primary Reference: Saleh and Teich, Fundamentals of Photonics

Supplementary References: These will be on 1-day reserve at the library:


Grades for the course will be based mostly on individual lab reports (see below), but will also be based on an oral presentation and quality of your lab notebook:

Lab Reports: The lab reports are formal written presentations of your experimental results. Although you will be working in groups of 2 or 3, I expect you to submit individual, independently written reports. The lab reports are to be written in the style of a research journal article. I will point out a number of features of your reports here that I consider important. However, since examples are the best way to establish what I expect, I have posted two reports that I wrote when I was a junior in college for a similar class (Advanced Laboratory, way back in 1993-4), including instructor's comments: coupled oscillators (pdf, 1M) and Fourier optics/spatial filtering (pdf, 396K).

Effective communication in writing is just as important as good laboratory technique and scientific insight. Your writings are how the rest of the world will know about your work. Therefore, I expect your formal reports to be of the highest quality.

Your reports should be typed, with 1.5 line spacing. Figures, tables, and equations should be included within the body of the text. Figures are best composed in a computer drawing package, but may be drawn neatly by hand (i.e., carefully drafted). Target length is about 10 pages; your reports will probably vary from 5-15 pages. Of course, the information content is much more important than length: 5 pages of insightful prose is vastly better than 15 pages with a low signal-to-noise ratio.

Your formal reports should roughly follow this basic outline (see the AIP Style Manual [1] for specific stylistic points):

Your formal reports will be graded on clarity and correctness of the above items, as well as grammar and overall professionalism of presentation. Also, of course, on the quality and correctness of your experimental results, as well as the extent and creativity of your experiments.

Presentation: Effectiveness in oral communication is also vital in any technical career. Often, the first time people become aware of your results is when they hear you present your results at a conference or in a smaller meeting. Your effectiveness in communicating your ideas and enthusiasm will determine their professional impression of you as well as whether or not they will continue to seek out more information about your work.

The presentations will be individual, and run 8 minutes with 2 extra minutes for questions. They will be held on the last day of class. You will pick one experiment to talk about. You may choose to present your own talk or part of a “super-long” talk on one experiment with your collaborators. In the latter case, each part will be treated as a separate presentation with questions between.

A good technical presentation is difficult to characterize in general (“you know it when you see it”), but here are some guidelines:

Lab Notebook: You should record all your raw data, sketches of your setup, derivations, etc. in a research laboratory notebook. A properly kept notebook will serve as a complete but informal writeup of your results, which you will later change into your formal writeup. Good notetaking habits are extremely important in professional laboratories, especially in industry. A properly documented notebook can serve as legal documentation of your research in the case of a patent dispute.

Note that proper practice requires each page of the notebook to be signed and dated each day in the presence of a witness who also signs each page; good notebook procedure also dictates that carbon paper be used to create duplicates of each page. I will not expect you to be this formal, however I will expect you to take extensive notes in your own notebook. Even when, for example, you take data on the computer or via an oscilloscope plot, you should still paste a copy of the data into your notebook.

A proper lab notebook has a durable binding on the left side, 50-100 numbered, duplicate pages, and measures 11"x9.25". The front cover is typically a mottled reddish brown, but the UO bookstore currently has notebooks with light grey covers.

Since you will need your notebooks to do the lab work and make the formal reports, I will not collect them. Rather, I will simply conduct random spot-checks during class time.


See the modules page for a list of the available laboratory modules, along with which modules are assigned to your group. The documentation is available online here. You should read the module materials before coming to class, including looking up any necessary supplementary reading in the library references listed above.

The general idea is that you will start each module with a blank optical table and a supply of relevant equipment. You will construct setups as necessary to make measurements, with both me and the writeups as a guide. When your time on the module is completed, you should break everything down and return the equipment to the initial state.

Also, since you can look at the various modules, look ahead to see which ones you'd like to do in the future, and let me know well in advance so I can make sure you get to the ones you want.

Philosophy of this Course

Typical physics curricula heavily emphasize theoretical coursework. Unfortunately, this does not match the training needs of physics students very well. According to a recent Physics Today article by Kirby, Czujko, and Mulvey, experimental physicists outnumber their theoretical counterparts by a ratio of about 2 to 1 at the new Ph.D. and university faculty levels, with even larger ratios in government laboratories and industry. Yet experimental methods typically account for only a small fraction of formal coursework in physics, even for students who will eventually focus on laboratory work. Obviously, experimental physicists need sound training in theory to understand the basis and meaning of physical measurements. However, the converse is also true: theoretical physicists benefit greatly from knowledge of laboratory methods and technology. This ensures a common language shared by theorists and experimentalists, which is absolutely crucial in the physical sciences. In fact, the interplay between theory and experiment is the very way in which the scientific method works in the physical sciences.

The goal of an advanced laboratory class such as this is to further you as a scientist. More obviously, this happens by learning laboratory technique, such as developing dexterity with equipment and an intuition for how to make things work. As well, you will spend longer periods of time with particular subjects and problems than you would in a lecture, allowing you to go much more in depth in certain areas. However, experimental physics is also an inherently creative pursuit, forcing you to figure out how to design a complex apparatus and how to push your equipment to its limits to get the best possible measurement. Laboratory science also pushes your ability to think critically: your apparatus may be trying to fool you, so you must constantly devise tests to make sure of what you are seeing, and when one of many possible parts of the apparatus fails you must be able to debug things and home in quickly on the problem. Finally, as I mentioned above, you are usually exposed to the “finished product” in terms of physical theory in lecture-type classes. Here, you will see firsthand the testing ground that these theories have survived time and again until they made it into textbooks.

Therefore, while you will have access to writeups for the experimental modules, ultimately you are responsible for the direction and accomplishments of your experiments. With this in mind, you should regard the writeups as being a rough guide, with the details of the experimental apparatus and experimental procedure being up to you (within the limits of the available equipment). My role is to help you gain competency with the equipment and help you understand the physics, the primary goal being to facilitate your posing and answering scientifically interesting questions for yourself. This is a crucial part of your development as a creative and independent thinker.


Nominally, each lab should take 2 weeks (4 class periods of 3 hours each). This is a rough schedule; some of the projects will be extended slightly depending on their difficulty (the first module will be 5 class periods to help get things started). See the module assignments page for your group's actual schedule.

Tuesday Thursday
29 March
Module 1
31 March
Module 1
5 April
Module 1
7 April
Module 1 (need to reschedule this one)
12 April
Module 1
14 April
Module 2
19 April
Module 2
21 April
Module 2
26 April
Module 2; Module 1 writeups due
28 April
Module 3
3 May
Module 3
5 May
Module 3
10 May
Module 3; Module 2 writeups due
12 May
Module 4
17 May
Module 4
19 May
Module 4
24 May
Module 4; Module 3 writeups due
26 May
Module 4
31 May
Finish up report and presentation!
2 June
Presentations; Module 4 writeups due