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Show instruments some love

Progress in research would be impossible without state-of-the art instruments, but their contributions are often underappreciated.

Never change a running system — goes a popular mantra in research. However, before an experimental setup can be left largely untouched, it needs to be assembled. And it will run happily with basic maintenance only if its components are just right. Today, lasers and optical elements, electronics and cryostats as well as a host of other specialist equipment can be bought from your lab supplier of choice. As exciting as a new purchase arriving at the lab can be, these ‘store-bought’ components are often taken for granted, even though high-quality instruments are all-important to research, driving scientific discovery.

From the outside, most physics instruments are fairly unremarkable boxes with subdued colour schemes. But opening the lid — provided that’s even an option — reveals a level of complexity that is only made possible by modern precision-engineering. For example, a state-of-the art laser system hides the contents of an entire optical bench, designed to guarantee long-term stability by using the latest techniques, which is why this particular type of box should only be opened in a clean room.

The degree of stability, precision and control this provides is the result of decades of development that requires a dedicated team and would not be possible as a side-project in a research group. As such, it is a blessing for the scientific community that the legwork behind the development of these indispensable devices can be outsourced to instrumentation companies, willing to invest the time and the money. In fact, many of the big names in the business started off as spin-outs from universities or other research institutions and they continue to employ many a physics graduate, continuing the link with their academic roots.

Every experimentalist is aware how much they depend on the instruments in their lab, and not only from the memory of that devastating time when one broke down and they had to wait for it to be fixed. But while chasing the joy of an exciting physical result, it’s too easy to forget that these experiments would not be possible without an industry supplying ever more sophisticated equipment. So, let’s all take a moment to appreciate the instruments we use — even if they are inconspicuous boxes in a corner of the lab — and the people who make them.

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Show instruments some love. Nat. Phys. 18, 475 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41567-022-01622-y

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