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Waiting for the drop

Stella Karver reports on new developments in the University of Queensland’s pitch drop experiment

Seven decades is an exceptionally long period of time spent twiddling your thumbs observing a funnel, but is it worthwhile?

Dublin’s Trinity College believed it was after being the first to successfully capture on film a pitch drop. In the Autumn of 1944, almost 69 years ago Trinity College decided to replicate University of Queensland’s long-term pitch drop experiment.

The UQ’s experiment remains the oldest of its kind, and holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s longest continuously running laboratory experiment, begun in 1927 by Professor Thomas Parnell.

Pitch is the name of a number of highly viscous liquids which appear solid, most commonly bitumen. At room temperature, tar pitch flows at an agonisingly slow rate, taking years, even decades to form a single drop, as pitch has a viscosity approximately 230 billion times that of water.

The 11th July 2013 marks the first time a pitch drop has ever been successfully captured on film. The reason this video footage from Trinity College is so profoundly significant to the scientific community and pitch drop junkies around the world is that it is the first time a drop has ever been witnessed.

Since January of 1961 Professor John Mainstone of UQ has been enthralled by this experiment. During his career he missed witnessing the fourth drop in 1962. In April 1979 he left the experiment on a Saturday evening and found the sixth drop had fallen when he returned on the Monday morning.

It becomes increasingly ridiculous as the decades pass. In 1988 Professor Mainstone was standing observing, then decided to exit to make a cup of tea, and returned to it having dropped, missing it by fifteen minutes.

In 2000, out of sheer frustration, he had installed a continuous webcam system to capture the eighth drop imminently intended to drop but due to a technical malfunction during the prized moment on the 28th of November it was missed. It has been self-described as the “saddest moment” of Professor Mainstone’s career.

Currently, in preparation for the ninth drop UQ have installed three web cameras with live streaming. This experiment is on public display in the School of Mathematics and Physics at UQ.

Professor John Mainstone and the late Professor Thomas Parnell were awarded in October 2005 the Ig Nobel Prize in Physics, a parody of the Nobel Prize – and the word ignoble – for their pitch drop experiment.

It may be an unusual or trivial achievement in scientific research, but these prizes are intended to “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.”

Seven decades is certainly a vast period of thinking time. So, is science rewarding? Of course it is. What sort of ignorant question is that?

It may be time-consuming, and you may see your life and career pass you by, but the rewards of science are evident.

When you understand what is happening you may find yourself mesmerised for hours or even a lifetime.

I assure you, as do the UQ Physics department “it is more exciting than watching grass grow!”

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