Today was about trying to focus a laser on the center of the cell, and then trying to focus the invisible glow on my little APD ("Avalanche Photo-Diode"), a light-detector which is connected to an amplifier, which is connected to an oscilloscope. If we set the laser to scan through a range of frequencies, the glow blinks on and off, as the laser hits the "resonant" frequency and then scans past it. On the 'scope, the little dancing dot draws two nice big peaks when the glow is "brightest" (but still invisible), and smaller peaks for less intense spectral lines. It's still a kick for me to see any theory actually work, especially in an aparatus that I built. Part of me never really believed in quantum mechanics, and spectral lines, even after seeing them in undergraduate labs. Subconsciously I must have assumed there was some trick to it. But this, I set up -- I know for a fact that it's not a special effect.
But I must admit it's not really the oscilloscope view which I find most convincing, even though it produces these text-book peaks. It's watching the cell wink which actually excites me. I say that this glow is infrared, invisible... But we have an infrared viewer. And if you look through it, there it is! A bright line of glowing gas, inside my empty cell. I can see the beam narrow when I put in a lens to focus the laser. I can see it flash as the laser scans frequencies. I can see it reflect off the post that's holding another lens, and I can see it cast shadows that aren't there in the room light. It's beautiful and uncanny. Of course I'm willing to believe in quantum mechanics after seeing something like that... Flickering "spectral" lines that can be seen as a green glow only if one looks through this special
But even so I can't believe that anything I've built actually works.