Precision Measurements and Model Testing (Part 1)

In the introductory lab, we made our own measurement device and used it to estimate the length dimensions of a card. When making these measurements, we had to estimate uncertainties on each value. Most students determined those uncertainties based on the limited resolution of their ruler. This week, we want to explore a completely different type of measurement – one where the uncertainty is better estimated through repeated measurements and statistics.

In the following project, you will perform some simple experiments – dropping slips of paper from fixed heights and building pendulums – but we will use this data to develop ideas about experiment design, repeatability, systematic biases, statistical distributions, and model-testing.

Student Code Of Conduct

There are certain expectations which the department of physics holds regarding your conduct in the instructional labs. These expectations relate to Safety, Etiquette, Professionalism and Ethics. Your TA will review these expectations with you at the beginning of your lab session. Please note, that behavior which falls in the Unacceptable category can result in your removal from the lab. These types of behavior do happen in the lab every year, so please take a moment to reflect on them.


Experimental physics and model testing

In physics, theory and experiment are fundamentally intertwined: you cannot have one without the other. Experimental discoveries open new avenues for theoretical development, while at the same time new theoretical predictions motivate experimental work. Experiments are performed for various purposes. Often experiments are designed to investigate phenomena for which there exists no theoretical understanding, while other experiments are designed to test theoretical predictions. Unexpected experimental results can lead to the discovery of “new physics”. Experiments are NOT done to confirm what we already know.

Many factors go into designing, building and performing an experiment. Questions arise on which the experimenter must make decisions regarding how to proceed… questions such as the following:

  • How precisely must a measurement be made? (I.e. When is an experiment finished?)
  • How many data points should I take? (The answer is usually not “10” nor is it “ask the instructor”.)
  • Are my results good enough? (Think about what the goal was when you started.)

Figuring out on your own how to answer the above questions in the course of doing an experiment and the subsequent interpretation of the final result of the experiment are what we will refer to as the process of “Thinking through an experiment”. Learning how to think through an experiment is one of the main goals of the lab component of this course.

One reason scientists do experiments is to test a model:

  • A person makes observations and collects some data.
  • That person (or a different person) builds a mathematical model based on some physics which attempts to explain what's going on.
  • The model is used to make predictions about a different scenario.
  • The predictions of the model are tested in the new scenario to see if the predictions are correct.
    • If the data are consistent with the predictions, we say the model is supported*. New predictions are made and more testing can be done.
    • If the data are inconsistent with the predictions, the model is discarded or revised (or the experiment is checked for biases or errors).
    • If the data is ambiguous – neither convincingly in agreement or convincingly in disagreement – then either more data is needed or a different experiment should be done.

*In science, we never prove a theory. We can disprove a theory (by providing contradictory data which does not agree with the predictions of the model) or find data in support of a theory (by providing data which is consistent with the predictions), but we can never say that a theory or model is completely true. We might one day be able to use that model to make a new prediction that shows a flaw in the model, or repeated measurements with increasing precision may eventually lead to disagreement with a model that was previously in agreement with experimental results.

We will get practice in model testing today by looking at the period of a simple pendulum.


The model we will test today is that the period $T$ of a pendulum should depend only on the length $L$ of the pendulum and the acceleration due to gravity $g$ according to the formula $T = 2\pi\sqrt{\frac{L}{g}}$. (Do not worry if you have not yet encountered pendulums in lecture; you do not need to know any theory in order to test the model.)

Our model predicts that the period should not depend on the mass of the pendulum $m$ nor the angle $\theta$ from which it is released. We will specifically test whether the period depends on the release angle.

Part 1: Understanding statistics, building a pendulum and developing experimental technique

Lab notebook template

One member of the group should click on the link below to start your group lab notebook. (You may be asked to log into your UChicago Google account if you are not already logged in.) Make sure to share the document with everyone in the group (click the “Share” button in the top right corner of the screen) so each member has access to the notebook after you leave lab.

All members of the group are expected to contribute to all aspects of the experiment, including making notes in the lab notebook. If you brought a laptop or tablet to lab, you may want to open multiple copies of the notebook so that different group members can contribute simultaneously. If you did not, then it's OK to have just one group member typing in the document at a time (though you should regularly rotate record-keeping duties… both within the lab period and from lab-to-lab.)

Dropping paper: a quick statistics lesson

In the at-home experiment, you estimated uncertainties on measured quantities based on the resolution of your ruler. For this experiment, we're going to introduce a different way of estimating uncertainty based on making repeated measurements.

To get some practice – and to learn some definitions – we're going to first play with paper before moving on to the pendulum.

Taking data

Your task is as follows: drop small paper squares from a height of 1 meter and determine how long they take to hit the floor.

  • How will you measure the height?
  • How will you measure the time?

Repeat the measurement several times (you will only have a few minutes) and record your data in your group notebook.

Once you have your data, discuss the question “How long did it take for the paper to hit the floor?” within your group. After a short time, your TA will lead a class discussion; be prepared to share your thoughts.

Partner up with another group in the class and compare your values. You both were trying to answer the question “How long does it take for a piece of paper to fall 1 m?” Do your two groups agree on the answer? What does agreement mean here? What criteria do you use to determine this?

Class discussion

Your TA will prompt a class discussion. Don't expand the following drop-down sections until instructed to do so.

Statistics definitions

Let's define some useful statistical measures. For the following, we will assume that you measured a quantity $N$ times and got a list of values $x=[x_1, x_2, \ldots, x_N]$.

  • The mean (or average) of a list of numbers is given by $\mu = x_{\textrm{avg}} = \dfrac{1}{N}\sum_i^N x_i$.
  • The standard deviation of a list of number is given by $\sigma = \sqrt{\dfrac{\sum_i^N (x_i-\mu)^2}{N-1}}$.
  • The standard deviation of the mean (or standard error) is given by $\mu_{\sigma}=\sigma/\sqrt{N}$.
Gaussian (normal) distributions

When we make observations of something which varies with random fluctuations, that data typically obeys a Gaussian (also called a Normal) distribution. Such a distribution can be characterized by parameters like the average, $\mu$, (or mean) and standard deviation, $\sigma$. The standard deviation tells us something about the typical “spread” in values. It tells us how wide the distribution is.

Suppose we a student who can collect data for a long time. The figures below show an example of how this student's Gaussian distribution evolves as they add more and more data.

10 drops

50 drops

100 drops

500 drops

As the number of drops increases, the distribution looks more and more like a smooth Gaussian and we get better estimates for both the average and the standard deviation. But notice that the standard deviation (the width of the distribution) doesn't change much; taking more data doesn't make the distribution more narrow.

For that reason, we need to define a different parameter… one that will scale as the number of data points increases to reflect the fact that our estimate of the uncertainty also improves with the number of counts. This parameter is called the standard deviation of the mean, $\sigma_{\mu}$, (or, sometimes called the standard error):

$\sigma_{\mu} = \sigma/\sqrt{N}$.

If we look now at those data distributions again, we can see that the standard deviation of the mean does decrease as we add more data. Hence, we can now more carefully state our average and its uncertainty as $\mu \pm d\sigma_{\mu}$.

10 drops

50 drops

100 drops

500 drops

Using the plot with 500 drops, we can now say that the average fall time is $T = 0.997 \pm 0.006$ seconds.

Revisiting your data

Now, return to your drop data and the data from the other group you spoke with. Compute the standard deviation of the mean and use the $t^{\prime}$ criteria you learned last week to look for agreement between your average value and that of the others. Are your results in agreement with the others? In disagreement? Inconclusive?

If you are in disagreement, what could be some reasons?

To help you with these calculations, we provide an online program here. This is a Google Colaboratory notebook running Python code. You do not need to know how to code to use the notebook… it is just a tool!

We will use this same program again later in the project to help us plot and visualize data.

Criteria for establishing agreement – $t'$

Now suppose we have two measurements which we want to compare: $A \pm \Delta A$  and $B \pm \Delta B$. In order to determine whether they are in agreement, we will measure a quantity called $t'$: \begin{equation*} t' = \frac{A - B}{\sqrt{(\Delta A)^2 + (\Delta B)^2}}. \end{equation*}

In the case where only one value has an uncertainty (for example, when you want to compare a measured value $A \pm \Delta A$ to a predicted or literature value $B$), this simplifies to \begin{equation*} t' = \frac{A - B}{\Delta A}. \end{equation*}

If the values are within one uncertainty of each other, it is possible that the difference is due only random chance. We will consider this to constitute agreement: $\lvert t' \rvert \leq 1$.  (Note that agreement might turn into disagreement if more data is taken and the size of the uncertainties shrink. Remember that we can never prove a model correct… we can only say that current data supports its.)

If the values are more than three uncertainties away from each other, it is statistically unlikely that the difference is due only random chance. We will consider this to constitute disagreement: $\lvert t' \rvert \geq 3$.

If the values are between one and three uncertainties of each other, we cannot say with certainty if the difference is random chance or a real disagreement. We will consider this to be inconclusive: $1 < \lvert t' \rvert < 3$.

Remember to record your values and your conclusions in the group notebook! Communicate what you think the take-away messages are – both for your future self and for any other scientist who might read your work.

The period of a pendulum

You have been provided a variety of rods, clamps and other apparatus with which you can make a pendulum. Your task is to test whether or not the period of a pendulum is independent of the initial angle as predicted by the model: $T = 2\pi\sqrt{\frac{L}{g}}$. Using the apparatus provided it is possible to make very precise measurements if your experimental technique is good. Since we want you to learn how to think your way through these experiments, we are not going to specify how to best use the apparatus at your disposal. Instead it is up to you to figure out how to get the most out of the equipment in the time available to you.


Begin by constructing a pendulum and determine the predicted value for the period given your pendulum length. The goal here is to get a feeling for working with the apparatus available to construct a pendulum which functions well, and to develop your own procedure for making the necessary measurements. It is expected that you will have to iterate on both the construction of your apparatus and timing methodology in order to begin to obtain good results. This is how research experiments are developed and we want you to learn how to get started on your own, try out different ideas, collect some preliminary data, evaluate how well the experiment is performing, identify things which can be improved, implement and test your improvements, etc. This is a learning process where you are learning about your experimental apparatus and technique, understanding how well you are able to perform measurements as well as the limits on what you can and cannot conclude from your data.

Attempt to measure the period for a few angles that cover the range of the model you are testing and which push the extremes of what your apparatus is capable of.

Use the calculation and plotting resources provided in the Google Colab notebook above to look at your data.

Remember to update your group notebook as you go, including information about (and pictures of) your pendulum and technique, preliminary data or plots, and your first thoughts.


Below are some tips to get you started:

  • You are going to be making multiple measurements of periods for different angles. How are you going to ensure that each trial for a given angle starts off the same? How will you ensure that you begin at the same angle each time? How will you make sure that the mass is released the same way each time? You may have to spend a little bit of time trying different techniques to determine an appropriate procedure. Don't forget to document your work in your notebook, even the attempts that you decide against using.

  • How many and at what angles will you need to take data? The only way to know the answer to this sort of question is to look at your data as you take it. Within your group, designate at least one person to record the data, compute averages, and compare with predictions from the model in real time. Your data will tell you what you need to be doing in order to accomplish the stated goal of the experiment. For example, you might try taking some quick data at a relatively small angle and at a relatively large angle and look at the results to gain insight into what range of angles are needed. Using your data like this to inform your experimental procedure is an acquired skill; no one starts off especially just good at it. We cannot tell you how to do it, the only way to develop the skill is to do it yourself.

  • For a given angle, how many periods do you need to measure and average? Again, you have to look at your data to determine how much is enough.  Ultimately your goal is to make the most precise measurement possible in the time available to you.

Note that there is no “right” answer to questions like “how much data do I take?”. The answer is not necessarily “I will take 10 measurements at 10 angles.” Ten is a nice round number, but it's not special; you need to balance the time it takes to collect data with the the range of data you need to have by the end of the period. Even professional research scientists do not have infinite time and resources to conduct a “perfect” experiment – whatever “perfect” may mean.

You (as well as professional scientists) are limited by the equipment and resources available. You have a finite amount of time to produce a result. Experimental physics is an iterative process of taking some data, evaluating that data to see what needs to be improved, and making adjustments to your apparatus and technique based on these intermediate results. Keep in mind what it is that you are trying to accomplish at the end of the day (or in this case, the end of the lab period).  

Ask your instructor questions and bounce ideas off of them or other students in the lab; everyone learns from interacting with one another. The instructors are there to help guide you through the experiment, but they will not tell you exactly what angles to measure or how many measurements to take. They will not tell you if your data are “good enough”. These are things you have to decide for yourself.

Submit your lab notebook

Make sure to submit your lab notebook by the end of the period. Download a copy of your notebook in PDF format and upload it to the appropriate spot on Canvas. Only one member of the group needs to submit to Canvas, but make sure everyone's name is on the document!

Don't forget to log out of both Google and Canvas, and to close all browser windows before leaving!

Post-lab assignment

After the lab is over, each student in your group will write up their own conclusions and submit them to their TA via Canvas. Your individual conclusions are due no later than 48 hours before the start of your next lab. Your conclusions will be graded for completeness and quality according to the rubric on the PHYS141 main wiki page.

Even though you worked as part of a group in the lab, and submitted one group notebook, your individual conclusions must be your own work.

Your conclusions should not require more than one or two pages of text, though the final document may be longer if you include plots of data. The focus of your writeup should be on the final conclusions which you are able to draw based on your work in the lab. Assume that the reader, i.e. your TA, knows what the lab is about and has access to your groups notebook. As such you do NOT need to write about the following:

  • What you did in the lab.
  • Background and motivation for the experiment.
  • Theory.
  • Details of apparatus used.

You are expected to clearly articulate your conclusions and discuss how your data support those conclusions.


Take a moment to think a bit about the learning objectives for this lab course. These were listed on the lab homepage, but as a reminder we provide them again here.

For the introductory physics laboratories here at the University of Chicago, we have adopted a set of learning objectives. By the end of this course, you should be able to do the following:

  • collect data and revise an experimental procedure iteratively and reflectively;
  • evaluate the process and outcomes of an experiment quantitatively and qualitatively;
  • extend the scope of an investigation whether or not results come out as expected;
  • communicate the process and outcomes of an experiment; and
  • conduct an experiment collaboratively and ethically.

Put succinctly, the goal is to understand how we know, not what we know.*

* These goals were first outlined by the Physics Education Research Lab at Cornell University for labs at all levels, but especially for introductory labs. You can read more about the philosophy behind these learning goals  here.)

Drawing scientifically appropriate and meaningful conclusions is not easy. It is a skill which is learned and which you develop over time. Here are some thoughts to guide you in drawing conclusions from your lab work.

The conclusion is your interpretation and discussion of your data.

  • What do your data tell you?
  • How do your data match the model (or models) you were comparing against, or to your expectations in general? (Sometimes this means using the $t^{\prime}$ test, but other times it means making qualitative comparisons.)
  • Were you able to estimate uncertainties well, or do you see room to make changes or improvements in the technique?
  • Do your results lead to new questions?
  • At the end of the lab period were there things you learned about what you did and how you did it that you could use to improve your experiment and obtain more precise results?

In a few paragraphs, draw conclusions from the pendulum data you collected today. Address both the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the experiment and feel free to use plots, tables or anything else from your notebook to support your words. Don't include throw-away statements like “Looks good” or “Agrees pretty well”; instead, try to be precise.

Remember… your goal is not to discover some “correct” answer. In fact, approaching any experiment with that mind set is the wrong thing to do. You must always strive to reach conclusions which are supported by your data, regardless of what you think the “right” answer should be. Never should you state a conclusion which is contradicted by the data. Stating that the results of your experiment are inconclusive, or do not agree with theoretical predictions is completely acceptable if that is what your data indicate. Trying to shoehorn your data into agree with some preconceived expectation when you cannot support that claim is actually considered to be fraudulent, don't do that.

In the next lab, we will return to the pendulum to take more measurements with the goal of increasing the precision of your measurements based on what you learned in this lab period. This is a common theme in experimental physics; making measurements, analyzing your data, gaining experience and learning how to improve your experimental technique, going back into the lab to refine your experiment and improve your results… We assure you that no one plans and executes an experiment all in one go.

REMINDER: Your post-lab assignment is due 48 hours before your next meeting. Submit a single PDF on Canvas.