1 December 2009

The life of an experiment

From idea to published paper, every experiment follows a similar path of inquiry.

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A scientist has an idea, does an experiment, gets a result, and writes a paper about it. Simple, right? Yes – and no. If you've ever hung out with a little kid who asks "why" over and over and over for every answer you give, it's kinda like that. From the time a scientist finds a question he or she wants to ask, to the time the answer to that question is publishable as a paper, several people, states and countries can be involved, and each question only leads to asking more.

Stuart BrownMagLab user and UCLA physicist Stuart Brown works on an experiment in the MagLab's DC Field Facility. As the deputy director of the lab and a researcher himself, Eric Palm knows a thing or two about the process of planning, guiding and publishing an experiment. Rather than a straight line from start to finish, he describes the process of gathering data as circular.

"With any halfway decent experiment, you end up with more questions than you answer, and that's the cool thing about science," said Palm. "Science isn't about determining actual truth – it's about getting to our best understanding of the world we live in. We can get to a better and better understanding, but each new level kind of brilliantly reveals all these things we still don't know."

Users who come to the MagLab are in an experimental, data-gathering phase of this process. They might wonder how a certain material behaves in very high magnetic fields or at very low temperatures or be looking for an entirely new state of matter. Other users are trying to uncover the chemical makeup of amazingly complex mixtures like PFAS chemicals or petroleum-based samples. Or some might be trying to find biofuel alternatives, create quantum devices, or better understand health challenges like migraines 

A TYPICAL EXPERIMENT INVOLVES

  1. Asking a question.
  2. Deciding which tools will be best to get an answer. 
  3. Requesting magnet time and scheduling a trip to the lab.
  4. Working with their own research team, plus MagLab user support staff, to gather experimental data.
  5. Going home with the data and figuring out what it means.
  6. Assembling data into a paper that includes the original question, a description of the experiment and figures.
  7. Submitting the completed paper for publication.
  8. Making any changes reviewers suggest.
  9. Celebrating!

For their experiments, users come to the MagLab for extreme conditions. Some users need a powerful resistive magnet to discover more about a material's properties. Others are better served with low-noise, high homogeneity instruments to provide the right experimental space. 

More than 1,600 users gather data at one of the lab's seven user programs each year. All prospective users apply for magnet time, then wait to see if their applications are accepted. Because magnet science is a comparatively small field, many users have been here before. But about 1 in 5  magnet users each year make their first trip to the MagLab to begin their high-field research 

"With the type of experiments that I do, from start to finish it can take a couple of years before I'm ready to share some data," frequent MagLab user and UCLA physicist Stuart Brown explained. "You can conjecture at first but you don't know what's going to happen when your sample goes into the magnet, and you have to have the patience to see where it takes you. There are always unanticipated circumstances, because you're not measuring where someone has been before."