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PHYS 231 A: Introductory Experimental Physics

Summer Term: 
Meeting Time: 
M 1:10pm - 2:10pm
PAA A110
Photo of Nikolai
Nikolai Tolich

Syllabus Description:

Welcome to PHYS 231A, my name is Nikolai Tolich <>, and I will be your instructor. This class has laboratory and lecture components. In the lecture component we will learn about the concepts of experimental uncertainty. In the laboratory component you get to design three experiments and put what you have learned in lecture into practice by writing experimental reports capable of convincing a colleague about the validity of your conclusions, which is a key part of the scientific method.

Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to:

  1. Design a scientific method.
  2. Understand the statistical underpinnings of uncertainty.
  3. Understand the nature of systematic uncertainty.
  4. Write a scientific report with valid conclusions and discussion of results.


  • We will cover most of Measurements and their uncertainties a practical guide to modern error analysis by Ifan Hughes. The UW has a license for the ebook.


  • Lectures are from 1:10 PM to 2:10 PM on Monday in lecture hall A110 of the Physics and Astronomy Building auditorium wing. I will post slides under the "Files" menu on the left before class, and I will update them after class. If you cannot attend lecture, you can find recordings of the lectures under the "Panopto Recordings" menu on the left.
  • Pre-lecture reading

  • In order to follow the lecture it is important that students do the assigned reading before class.
    Week Lecture Reading Lab
    1 Scientific method pdf None
    2 Errors in the physical sciences Chap. 1 Pendulum
    3 Random errors in measurements Chap. 2
    4 Uncertainties as probabilities Chap. 3 Radioactivity
    5 Error propagation Chap. 4
    6 Data visualization and reduction Chap. 5 Electrons in magnetic field
    7 Least-squares fitting of complex functions Chap. 6
    8 Hypothesis testing—how good are our models? Chap. 8 Presentations
    9 Final exam
  • Lectures will focus on conceptual understanding of topics in the reading that students found most difficult, and we will also work on some quantitative problem solving skills. We will not go over all the material covered in the book, but you can be tested on all the material in the reading unless explicitly noted otherwise.
  • Pre-lecture discussion

  • Before lecture, but after you have finished the reading, you should complete the discussion assignment related to the reading.
  • These can be found under "Assignments" on the left menu and are due at 1:00PM before each lecture.
  • You will be given credit for either asking or answering a question already asked on the discussion board, or discussing a part of the reading you found particularly interesting. These are graded based on a thoughtful attempt, not on correctness. This is designed to have you carefully think about the reading before the class. Example posts could be something like
  • In-class quizzes

  • Research shows that simply sitting and listening during lecture is not an effective method to learn complicated material. It is far better to be actively engaged by thinking discussing and solving problems.
  • In order to increase participation and learning, there are quizzes during class that are assigned through Poll Everywhere. These require you to bring a web enabled device to lecture, so please contact me if you do not have access to a web enabled device. You will be given credit for participating.
  • The first time I ask a question, you should answer it by yourself. Depending on the result, I may ask it a second time, in which case you should discuss with your neighbors.


  • Laboratory sections are in PAB B042 (in the basement near the physics loading dock).
  • There are four lab sections per week.
    • Section AA, Monday 2:20PM-5:40PM (TA: Nikola Whallon <>)
    • Section AB, Tuesday 1:10PM-4:30PM (TA: Ibrahim Abdurrahman <>)
    • Section AC, Thursday 1:10PM-4:30PM (TA: Ibrahim Abdurrahman <>)
    • Section AD, Friday 1:10PM-4:30PM (TA: Ibrahim Abdurrahman <>)
  • You will design three experiments to test a model based on three different sets of equipment, where you have two weeks to complete each experiment.
  • You will work in randomly assigned groups of three or four students and you will submit a single lab report for the group one week after you completed each experiment.  Each member of the group will have to sign off that everyone contributed approximately equally to the report, and if they do not, then after meeting with me to discuss the details, I may decide not to give you credit for the group report.
  • The equipment for each lab is fixed, but your group is free to decide what model they wish to test with the given equipment.
  • In the final week of labs each member of your group will make an individual presentation, each on a different one of your experiments.
  • You will be excused if you cannot attend a single lab due to sickness. However, if you miss both labs assigned for your group, you will need to join a group from another section with my approval.
  • A 5x5 QUAD lab notebook available at the bookstore or a laptop should be used to record all data. It is important that you do enough analysis during the lab to determine if you have the necessary data to complete your lab report before you leave the lab.
  • Lab reports should be typed and submitted online.


  • We will have a final exam during class time on Monday August 13th.
  • Note that there are no make-up exams. So, students with outside professional, service, or career commitments (i.e. military service, ROTC, professional conference presentation, NCAA sports, etc.) conflicting with the exam date must contact me early in the quarter to establish alternate examination procedures. Exam scores for students who miss the exam without making prior arrangements will be zero.


  • The course grade will be based on the following:
    • Reading discussion assignments, 5%
    • In-class quizzes, 5%
    • Lab reports, 45%
    • Lab presentation, 15%
    • Final exam, 30%
  • Each student is required to submit three completed lab reports during the course of the quarter to pass the class. 
  • You will lose 10% for every day that a lab report is late.

Office hours and getting help

  • You are encouraged to visit me or the teaching assistants during our office hours
    • Nikolai Tolich <ntolich@uw.eduMonday from 10:50 AM to 11:50 PM in B211
    • Ibrahim Abdurrahman <ia4021@uw.eduTuesday from 12:00 PM to 1:00 PM in B466
    • Nikola Whallon <alokin@uw.eduMonday from 12:00 PM to 1:00 PM in B042 (lab)
  • If you cannot attend office hours but have a physics question you should post it on the discussion board under "Discussions" on the menu on the left.
  • If you want to visit me and cannot attend scheduled office hours, email me <> to find a time we can meet.

Suggested problems

  • Since students can find solutions for the problems online there will not be assigned problem sets.
  • However, I strongly encourage you work through problems. Here is a list of suggested problems. You can work on these as a group or by yourself. In preparation for the exams you should try doing the problems under exam conditions with only the equation sheet.
  • We will provide solutions for the suggest problems. For other problems you can ask the TAs or myself about solutions at our office hours, or you can post questions about the solutions on the discussion board.

Access and accommodation

  • Your experience in this class is important to me, so if you have a temporary health condition or permanent disability that requires accommodations (conditions include but are not limited to: mental health, attention-related, learning, vision, hearing, physical), please see details on getting access and accommodation

Safe campus

  • I am committed to ensuring a safe environment on campus. I suggest you check out the resources available here, These include services if you have a lab or tutorial that is late at night and need someone to walk with you.
Catalog Description: 
Introduction to data acquisition and analysis using experiments which measure fundamental constants or properties of nature (Planck's constant, Boltzmann's constant, speed of light, charge of electron). Prerequisite: minimum 2.0 grade in PHYS 123. Offered: A.
GE Requirements: 
Natural Sciences (NSc)
Section Type: 
Last updated: 
October 17, 2018 - 9:41pm