Research instruments play a big role in enabling the progress of science. The term, instrumentation, includes all the different instruments from the many parts of science. This introductory presentation is for general readers! It describes how research equipment originates and develops, and, points out why science instruments almost always are an expensive budgetary component of modern research projects in science.
Basics about instrumentation for scientific research.
Research instruments are tools used to acquire data (i.e., research results) during experimental investigations. They are fundamental in all branches of science (e.g., cell counters and sorters, microscopes, PCR machines (polymerase chain reaction), sonogram recorders, etc., in biomedical science; chromatographs, spectroscopes, ultrarapid recorders, x-ray diffractometers, etc., in chemistry; and, atomic force microscopes, electron diffractometers, magnetometers, terrestrial and space telescopes, etc., in physics). Some research instruments are huge, but are used to examine very small specimens such as atoms and molecules, while other instruments are small, but are used to examine gigantic specimens such as volcanoes and oceans. Thermometers are simple instruments that continue to be widely used by both scientists and ordinary people.
Science seeks answers to research questions (see: “Fundamentals for beginners: What is science? What is research? What are scientists?” ). Obtaining these answers often uses measurements, images, sonograms, spectra, etc., made by research instruments. Most such output is quantitative, and high precision always is sought. Research instruments directly produce and record data, while accessories and related equipment expand the range of applications and enable processing of the raw results with statistics and analysis; nowadays, most science instruments are used with personal computers for control and operation, storage of output, and, analysis of the research data.
Some science instruments have extremely general usage (e.g., balances, light microscopes, mass analyzers, , pH meters, small ovens and freezers, vacuum chambers, etc.). Other research instruments have only a very specific usage (e.g., cosmic ray detectors, Raman microscopes, space probes, ultra-rapid spectroscopes, etc.); usually these special instruments are much more complex and costly than are general instruments. The cost to purchase a manufactured research instrument generally is high; this is due largely to their complexity, and to the limited number of potential buyers (e.g., some few hundreds). High purchase prices of instrumentation are accepted due to the value of the research results produced (see: “Why is science so very expensive? Why do research experiments cost so much?” ).
Big science commonly uses unique, special, and very expensive research instruments that serve as a research facility for many scientists (e.g., 3-G synchrotrons; free-electron lasers; neutron diffractometers). Two of the 3 new giant terrestrial telescopes now are being constructed in the mountains of northern Chile. Each of the 3 has a total cost of over one billion dollars, and will take 8-10 years to finish their very complex construction (see excellent article: “Behemoth telescopes build towards first light” by Toni Feder in 2015 Physics Today 68:24-27)). Because of their fundamental importance for science, these very special research facilities each must be funded by multiple nations and organizations.
General stages in the history of any research instrument.
The total development of research instruments generally passes through a common sequence of stages: (1) invention and first construction, (2) initial usage by the originator and other scientists, (3) commercial development by engineers, industrial scientists, and manufacturers, and, (4) ongoing development of advanced manufactured versions with additional or better capabilities.
Most research instruments available for purchase today originated with the work of one creative individual, known subsequently as the inventor or originator (i.e., often this person is both a scientist and an inventor). The origination of science instruments typically results from a wish to acquire data that is not currently available. The number of research scientists involved in stage 2 is largely determined by current interest in some field and by current attention to the research question(s) involved. The total time needed for stage 3 is quite variable, and can be months to years. Stage 4 features modifications and improvements in the commercialized instrument; it can involve establishment of competing manufacturers, each of which claims that their version produces data faster, more accurately, more efficiently, with finer detail, and/or with lower cost, than do the products of other vendors. Scientist-users often help the manufacturers make significant improvements in instrument capabilities, functioning, and applications.
The fun of using research instruments.
Using modern research instrumentation to produce good data is not always easy. Acquiring the ability to become a skilled user of science equipment usually comes from personal hands-on experience and many failed trials. Once operation of a research instrument is mastered by a scientist or technician, this not only results in production of good data, but also creates personal pride. However, scientists who are very skillful and experienced experts often are surprised to find they only have an incomplete knowledge about the instrument when they first try to teach a new user how to operate it. For some researchers, the trials and tribulations of using complex instruments becomes nothing less than fun! Large, complex, and costly science instruments even can be considered to be wonderful toys by those lucky enough to use them!
Any research instrument, whether used by only a few or by very many scientists, has a history involving the work of engineers, scientist-users, workers at manufacturing companies, and various others, all of whom add to the accomplishment of the initial inventor(s) who built the first one. Although there now is a general tendency to make commercial versions of research equipment more automatic and easier to use, that does not deny the scientist-user’s benefit of working to become very skillful in operating a research instrument.
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