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MIT physics lab and HP-45
Posted by Paul M Lieberman on 22 Apr 2002, 5:07 p.m.
My first exposure to what I thought of as a computer was the HP-9100, which members of my junior high school math team were allowed to program.
Possibly the most demanding course for physics majors was the two-term Atomic Physics Lab (called "junior lab" by most, because most of us took it in our third year). There were various experiments we each had to perform, in teams of two (when I saw the expensive equipment in this lab, I suddenly realized where a good chunk of our tuition went [about $4000 in 1974]). When it came to the Rutherford experiment, which proves that atoms have nuclei, we shot alpha particles from Americium (from a $5000 chunk of the radioactive metal) at gold leaf, and measured the dispersion of these particles. To see the result, we had to do a statistical analysis of the data. In earlier years, students who did not know how to program a computer, or did not have access to computer time (I believe most MIT physics majors in the early '70s did NOT have this skill), did these calculations by hand. In our class, we had one student with an HP-45 (I believe it cost him $495, or twice what it cost me to fly to Europe in '73). He graciously lent it to each of us as we did the Rutherford experiment, so we could use the built-in summation, mean and standard-deviation functions. For this, H-P, I will be forever grateful!
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