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The Laboratory Notebook

  • Page ID
    5173
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    An Example Lab Book

    In some teaching laboratories, especially at the High School level, it is taught that a good lab book has a defined structure. The structure might be:

    • Introduction
    • Theory
    • Apparatus
    • Procedure
    • Observations and Data
    • Discussion and Conclusions

    We are not aware of any research notebooks that have this structure. More typically, these are written as a diary, where all the information about the work is recorded as it is done. It should include everything about the work so that another person can read the notebook and know exactly what was done.

    The undergraduate Physics laboratories and the University of Toronto asks students to keep their lab notebook in this diary form.

    As example of the need for completeness may be helpful. The author of this page was once involved in a research project which depended on previous work done by another person. That person had left the country, and was no longer available. As my project progressed, none of my data was working out as we thought that it should. I went back to the previous project's lab books and discovered a mistake in a molecular weight calculation early in the project. This mistake was propagated through all the subsequent work. With some effort, I re-did all the calculations using the corrected molecular weight and things began to work out. The main point is: if the previous worker had not clearly done the molecular weight calculation in the lab book, all of that work would have been useless.

    Professor (Emeritus) R.E. Azuma of the Department of Physics, University of Toronto, has been active in experimental nuclear physics for many years. In this document we will present a few excerpts from a research notebook he took from late 1987 through early 1988. This is the type of record keeping to which all experimentalists aspire, but that few manage to achieve.

    The first example is from Page 7 of his notebook. To see that page in a separate window, click here. Note that:

    • The page has the date.
    • That a typing error has resulted in a 033 when 003 was intended. The error is clearly indicated.
    • Whiteout has been used to correct a mistake. This is usually considered bad laboratory practice.

    Another example is here. This is a series of notes on some of the computer issues relating to these experiments. Note that Professor Azuma has two clear opinions on some of the conventions of his software environment.

    Next we show a sequence of three successive pages for the lab book. The first one, here, shows some bad news: much of the proceeding work will have to be re-done. The new calibration is shown here.

    The third page shows a new experimental set-up. It is available here. In addition to the apparatus sketch, note the careful way that the times are noted as the apparatus is pumped down to a near-vacuum for the first time.

    Our final example from this research notebook is related to the efficiency calibration of the nuclear detectors. The theory and calculations, including errors, are shown here. Note the data circled in red towards the bottom, with a line running off the right hand side margin; the next page will show where that line connects. The results and a graph, including error bars, are shown here.