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Lab Equipment: Optics

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Lab Equipment: Optics

Physical Science

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You will get to find out what it’s like to work in a real laboratory environment by first exploring an interactive, virtual lab. Learn the basics, from proper safety procedures to the equipment used in the physical sciences, all without any of the hazards or messes of an actual lab.

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Now You Know

After completing this tutorial, you will be able to complete the following:

  • Explain how the equipment in an optics laboratory is used.

Everything You'll Have Covered

Optics is the science of light. A scientist who deals with light and optics is sometimes called an optical engineer. Light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and visible light is a part of this spectrum, in the wavelength ranges of around 350 nm to 800 nm. The principles, and many of the instruments, of optics apply to all electromagnetic waves, from long wavelength radio waves to short wavelength gamma rays.

In the course of his or her work, an optical engineer will use forms of the following equipment: spectroscopes, polarized film, and prisms, as well as other pieces of equipment.

A common form of spectroscope is the handheldhand-held spectroscope. These devices are simple to use and allow the user to quickly analyze the spectrum of light under investigation. A spectroscope works by separating parts of a light sample into a frequency spectrum, which then can be analyzed by the user. HandheldHand-held spectroscopes work by focusing a sample of light through a lens onto a prism or diffraction grating and thereby breaking the light up into its frequency components. The intensity of the light at different frequencies can be analyzed, which allows the user to understand the chemical composition of the source of the initial light going into the spectroscope.

Another piece of equipment used by an optical engineer is polarized film. These films use the property of light called polarization. Light is polarized because its electric field exists as a transverse wave along its axis of propagation. Light can be either linearly polarized (the electric field is oriented in a single direction with time), or circularlycircular or elliptically polarized (the electric field rotates around the line of propagation with time). Most natural light is said to be "unpolarized" because it is made up of light from many different sources that are all polarized differently. A polarized film is a device that converts a source of light into a well-defined polarization. For instance, a linear polarized film would take a beam of light and orient its outgoing polarization to lie along the axis of the polarized film.

As already mentioned, a prism is one of the devices that breaksbreak up a light source into its frequency components. A prism works because light changes its speed as it moves from one medium to another (think of a sun ray moving from air to water or glass). Because the light changes speed in this way in the prism in this way, it refracts, meaning the light changes direction due its change in speed from one medium to another. In the case of the prism, the speed of light in the prism's medium depends on the wavelength (i.e. frequency) of the light in the medium; therefore, components of the light that have different wavelengths will be refracted at different angles. This phenomenon is known as dispersion.

Protractors are semi-circular-shaped devices that can measure angles. Angles are marked off in degrees. Through the use of a prism, we can see that light is refracted at different angles. Then, through the use of a protractor, the angle(s) of refraction can be determined for each color or wavelength. Protractors also have many other uses in the physics lab.

As with so much research in science, computers can then be used to input and analyze data. In studying optics, an optical engineer might use the computer to store and analyze data relating to chemical compositions, polarizations, or refractions of light, as well as other topics.

Tutorial Details

Approximate Time 2 Minutes
Pre-requisite Concepts Students should be able to define the following terms: concave lens, concave mirror, and convex lens.
Course Physical Science
Type of Tutorial Animation
Key Vocabulary concave lens, concave mirror, convex lens