Episode 13: The Laboratory

episode-13-the-laboratoryJaxon drummed his fingers on the lab bench while he waited for the rest of the class to settle down. He hadn’t pulled out his notebook and was hoping he wouldn’t need to. The morning’s lectures had already given him a headache.

“Alright, is this all of you?” A woman in a mathematician’s gown stepped out onto the raised platform at the front of the lab.

“Bryony’s missing. She said she was coming here early, though,” Melinda said.

“One short, then. Anyone else missing?” After a brief silence the mathematician continued. “Good. We’ll begin and Bryony can catch up when she arrives. I’m Monica Nieminen, director of the teaching laboratories. I will be teaching your introductory lab work course and you can expect to see me around your other courses in the lab. My research is primarily in mechatronics, but I’m afraid you won’t see much of that until you’ve learned some more fundamental techniques.”

Jaxon sighed. Mechatronics would have been a lot more exciting than lab exercises.

Mathematician Nieminen looked down at him before resuming her speech. “Don’t be too disappointed. These labs aren’t supposed to be boring. In fact, I expect most, if not all, of you to struggle with the first few reports that you hand in. We leave the experimental design largely in your hands, which doesn’t make things easy.”

That prompted a rush of whispered  comments. Jaxon decided he’d reserve judgement until they knew what they actually had to do.

“Alright, ladies and gents, you’ll get your chance to talk presently. This will be the briefing for your first assignment. You may want to take notes.”

Jaxon was one of the few who had to reach down and dig out a notebook.

“Your first report will be centred around basic ideas of measurement. It gives you a chance to get familiar with the apparatus we have in the lab and brings up some ideas you’re going to need as mathematicians. There are a dozen measuring instruments set up in the lab now.”

Jaxon glanced around. He hadn’t realised that each lab bench had its own set-up.

“Make sure that you know how to use them all. When you hand in your report, we want an analysis of what you measure with each piece of apparatus. I’d also like to see some comparison between the equipment: when is the travelling microscope better than the vernier callipers? What about vice versa? When does a metre stick beat them both? You should use some sample measurements to back up your argument. You’ll find some things to measure set out on the lab benches already. If you want to use something that’s not there, let me know. We can probably arrange it.

“Your results are expected to be suggestive, not conclusive. Your sample sizes are going to be small. The point of the exercise is to get a feel for different things and develop expectations. Even with that restriction, you’re going to have to make design choices about exactly what measurements you make. There aren’t always right and wrong answers — I’ll be surprised if any of you come up with exactly the same approach. On that note, while we keep the labs informal and you’re encouraged to talk, you may not share results. The chaos that follows is never worth it.

“You have two weeks to play with the equipment and write up your report. One afternoon a week is dedicated to the lab intro, but you can come in and work whenever you’re free. If you’re confused, ask for help. I’ll be here and your class tutor should be arriving soon.” Mathematician Nieminen ran her fingers through her hair and surveyed the class. “I think that’s it. Any questions?”

Jaxon had plenty of questions, but all of the sort he wanted to figure out for himself. Nobody else asked anything either.

“Good. You should get started, then.”

There was silence for a few moments as Mathematician Nieminen left the platform. She’d given the class plenty to think about. Ivor and Kelly Jean were the first to start talking. Melinda too, if you counted instructions to her mech. A few people were staring off into space or scribbling furiously in their notebooks.

Jaxon walked over to the set-up on his bench: a travelling microscope, according to the manual beside it. It only took a moment to find the knobs to shift the lenses in the eyepiece. Jaxon slid a piece of fabric from the pile of things to measure under the microscope. With a bit of fiddling he moved the lens into place and focused on the fabric. Every thread popped into view, satisfyingly distinct. So much for the microscope part.

There was a larger dial on the side of the contraption. He turned it slowly. The microscope lens slid along a pair of rails. He switched directions and slid the lens back to where it had started. He peered through the eyepiece again. At that scale, he was quite a way from where he’d started.

“Managing without the instructions, hmm?”

Jaxon jumped. He hadn’t noticed anyone approaching. “Was I supposed to?”

Mathematician Nieminen smiled. “I won’t force you to read them, but you might find it helpful at some point. Have you got it focused?” She nodded at the microscope.

“Uh huh.”

“Let’s see, then.” She bent over and looked through the eyepiece. “Do you wear glasses?”

“Uh, nope.”

“No eye problems?”

“Uh, no. Is something wrong?”

“This is out of focus is all. See if it doesn’t look better now.” Mathematician Nieminen stepped back and gestured Jaxon forward to the microscope.

Jaxon couldn’t distinguish the threads in the fabric. He automatically reached for the focusing dial, but stopped himself just before he changed anything. “That looks blurrier to me.” He stepped back and rubbed his forehead. Things had been going so well before this.

“And you don’t wear glasses?” Mathematician Nieminen tilted her head and inspected him. “I think I’ll ask Biddy to look into that. You shouldn’t be focusing that far out from the rest of us. But carry on for now. Seems like you’ve got this figured out.” She walked on to the next lab bench.

Jaxon took a deep breath and rolled his shoulders. He didn’t think he needed glasses. Not that it should interfere with what he was doing. Rubbing one hand along his brow, he reached for the slider dial and began to experiment with the travelling microscope’s range of motion.

He had to resort to the manual on the table to understand the scale for measuring the movement. Even after reading it through he wasn’t sure he had things straight. He stood up to find Mathematician Nieminen, but she was busy explaining things to Bryony, who had eventually found her way to class.

“Need help, Jaxon?” Ricardo was trying to button up a lab coat that looked a little too tight.

“Yes please! Uh, are we supposed to be wearing lab coats?”

Ricardo looked around the lab. “I guess not.” He pulled the coat off and folded it over his arm. “Could’ve sworn we had to in first year. Now, what did you want help with?”

“I’m trying to understand this Vernier scale thing. I don’t understand where I’m supposed to look first.”

“Alright. You see there’s a larger and a smaller scale, yes?”

“Uh-huh.”

“The larger scale measures to the nearest millimetre and the smaller scale refines that measurement. So read the larger scale first. What’s the last mark before the small scale begins?”

Jaxon bent down to peer at the reading. “Five, I think.”

“Okay, good. Now we refine that by looking at where the second scale has a marking that lines up with the first. Go on.”

“Um.” Jaxon peered at the scale. “I think it’s seven. Maybe eight?”

Ricardo leaned over to look. “There’s a bit of a step at seven. Go with eight. So you have five millimetres and eight tenths of a millimetre. What’s your reading?”

Jaxon added up in his head. “Five-point-eight millimetres, I guess.”

“Exactly! Do you want to try another one now, or do you think you’ve got it?”

“It makes sense now. Thanks.”

“I’ll leave you to it, then.”

It only took a few minutes to take some measurements that would let him work out the fabric’s thread count. Jaxon figured that was a good enough sample to start with and headed on to the next bench.

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