A scientific instrument is an instrument used in science to acquire data, from nanoscale to macroscopic scales.
These are mostly measuring instruments (spectrometer for example) or observation (polarizing microscope for example) or, more and more, both at once.
An essential characteristic to qualify an instrument as scientific beyond its mere destination is the reproducibility of its operation and the precision of its measurement.
The reproducibility is not absolute, it is evaluated and quantified by means of the concept of analytical uncertainty, its validity being conditioned to a range of operating conditions and according to a handling protocol, to be explained. This is one of the challenges of standardization of measurement instruments and protocols.
Evolution and trends
New techniques are appearing regularly, for example:
- Thanks to computer science, by combining several “sensor” type instruments (several telescopes for example), we obtain the equivalent of a more powerful “virtual” instrument
- A power laser for ultra-high temperature volatilization, of a nanometric fraction of material, in order to get a fluorescence spectrum (LIBS technique for Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy)
Trend towards computerization
They include a system for recording and storing measurements, or the operator must record them for analysis elsewhere.
Scientific instruments are increasingly enriched with electronic components, often computer-controlled with sometimes expert software, which allows the data to be retrieved as directly usable files for analysis.
A new challenge is therefore that of interoperability.
Double tendency to miniaturization and gigantism
Microdetectors are emerging and some are planning nanoscale instruments, and at the same time giant instruments such as particle accelerators are being built. These expensive instruments are usually built by scientific consortia involving many countries, then used by international teams or host projects built in other countries.
Many instruments may exhibit drift over time, and / or require adjustments such as baseline setting or (re) calibration.