Slow And Steady

I don’t have  lot to add to the reports that the world’s longest running scientific experiment is about to reach a crescendo. I do think it’s pretty cool that Australian research is getting so much attention, including being one of the most read stories on the Guardian’s website.

For those who have not read the widespread media, pitch is actually a liquid, but so incredibly viscous (230 billion times as much as water) that it appears to behave as a solid. It’s commonly said that glass is another example of a “supercooled liquid” that behaves like a solid, but I gather this is now a matter of some dispute.

Way back in 1927 Professor Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland decided to demonstrate this to his students, heating pitch enough to shape it into a sealed funnel and then letting it cool. Droplets form like honey off a spoon, but millions of times slower, such that only 8 have dropped in the 86 years the project has been going. However, a nineth is getting perilously close to falling.

Much of the excitement comes from the fact that no one has ever seen a drop occur. It’s always happened while people were looking away. For the eighth drop the plan was to get round this by having a camera focussed on the drop, but it broke down (if this was being run by alien-hunters rather than scientists they would suggest some magic force in the pitch caused the malfunction to allow it to preserve its mystery). This time there will be several cameras from multiple angles, although those in charge of the experiment are quite keen to witness it for themselves.

University_of_Queensland_Pitch_drop_experiment-white_bg

The period between drops is increasing, as a result of a reduction in the weight of pitch at the top of the funnel.

The experiment won an Ig Nobel prize in 2005, after the point where the prizes largely shifted from poking fun at bad science to promoting good, but eccentric, research. I’ve always thought there was something interesting in Australia’s major over-representation amongst the Ig Nobels of this sort. It suggests our vision of ourselves as natural low-tech innovators and possessors of quirky senses of humour may be more than just a myth.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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