Microsoft Excel in Physics

Every good physics program has a lab course associated with its introductory physics classes.  In addition, all science majors take lab courses throughout the rest of their program of study.

A major component of these lab classes is the presentation and analysis of data using charts and graphs.  In this section of, I’ve added information on how to use Microsoft Excel in physics classes to plot this data.

Why use Excel?

There are many spreadsheet options available, from free versions like Google Docs or Open Office, to expensive ones like Microsoft Excel.  Why would you use the expensive version?  There are several reasons.  The first is that you are likely already somewhat familiar with Excel.  Many schools use it in Keyboarding and Introductory Computer classes.  I’ve taught at colleges where all students were required to show basic computer proficiency, and Microsoft products were the standard.  It is also likely that if you are a scientist or a student becoming a scientist, Microsoft products are available for free or nearly free through marketing deals that your campus has made.  Because of these deals, it is also likely that any collaborators you have will also use Microsoft products.  Compatibility is an important consideration.

What you are up against

Excel was originally designed for business users with relatively simple graphing needs.  In fact, the software still refers to graphs as “charts”.  With this in mind, it is easy to understand why the default settings produce large data points and use lots of color.  When you have less than 10 data points and are only comparing two or three different things, big colorful dots and squares make sense.  A sales manager would make a chart of sales over the past few months.  Throughout the rest of the website, I will call the items we are producing “graphs”, even though some of the menus refer to charts and chart options.

Excel has a tendency to use color poorly.  The default font and line colors tend to be grey, and will often look washed out.  Numbers on axes will have different numbers of digits because the default settings remove trailing zeroes.

You also need to consider the method of presentation.  A graph that looks great on a PowerPoint slide might be unreadable when reduced down to an 8.5 cm wide image for publication, especially if you don’t consider the resolution (in dots per inch: dpi).

In this section of the website, I’ll show you how to use Microsoft Excel in physics classes to make graphs that are useful for analyzing your data and look great as well.

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