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Published May 2015 | Published
Journal Article Open

A basic Michelson laser interferometer for the undergraduate teaching laboratory demonstrating picometer sensitivity


We describe a basic Michelson laser interferometer experiment for the undergraduate teaching laboratory that achieves picometer sensitivity in a hands-on, table-top instrument. In addition to providing an introduction to interferometer physics and optical hardware, the experiment also focuses on precision measurement techniques including servo control, signal modulation, phase-sensitive detection, and different types of signal averaging. Students examine these techniques in a series of steps that take them from micron-scale sensitivity using direct fringe counting to picometer sensitivity using a modulated signal and phase-sensitive signal averaging. After students assemble, align, and characterize the interferometer, they then use it to measure nanoscale motions of a simple harmonic oscillator system as a substantive example of how laser interferometry can be used as an effective tool in experimental science.

Additional Information

© 2015 American Association of Physics Teachers. Received 3 July 2014; accepted 4 November 2014. This work was supported in part by the California Institute of Technology and by a generous donation from Dr. Vineer Bhansali. Frank Rice contributed insightful ideas to several aspects of the interferometer construction and data analysis.

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