UQ Pitch Drop Experiment – Like watching paint dry only slower and more interesting

Einstein is amused transparency

To many the topic of science, the wonder of scientific discovery and the marveling at demonstrations of the oddities of science is fascinating to others it is like pulling teeth or watching paint dry.  I fall squarely in the first category of people.  I love science and the little quirks that lay in its long forgotten and dust-covered recesses.  My wife on the other hand falls into the latter category.  Most of the time she can take or leave it but occasionally we get into pulling teeth territory and she just can’t be around it for fear that one or more of her internal organs will leap up and strangle her brain in a last desperate attempt to save humanity.

Whilst I haven’t raised the University of Queensland Pitch Drop Experiment with her I am pretty sure that it would elicit a response of the teeth pulling, brain throttling variety were I to do so.  A discussion I will save for a later time perhaps such as when there is a quilting fair or needlepoint exhibition she wants me to attend.  You need to pick your battles carefully you know – but I digress.  Also, I exaggerate. Often.

Anyway, back to the University of Queensland Pitch Drop Experiment.  Very simply it goes like this:

  1. Pitch is a hard brittle solid substance you can smash apart with a hammer into jagged fragments at room temperature;
  2. Pitch also possesses some of the properties of a liquid at room temperature, for example it can be made to flow through a funnel into a beaker just like so much water.

Skeptical?  So were the students of Professor Thomas Parnell, the very first Professor of Physics at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.  

The Professor, being a scientist and wishing to prove his point like a good scientist does, devised the pitch drop experiment to demonstrate the validity of his claim.  I should mention the good Professor put this demonstration together in 1927, yes, 1927.

What he did was take a glass funnel, a beaker, a tripod a block of solid pitch and a hammer and broke the pitch up into the jagged fragments to which I referred earlier.  He then heated the pitch until it melted and poured the melted pitch into the funnel the tip of which had been sealed. Three years were then allowed for the pitch to set and harden at which point the end of the sealed funnel was opened and  the funnel suspended over the beaker using the tripod.  He then covered the whole apparatus with a large bell jar. Simple, like any good experiment.  The only remaining stipulations were that the whole apparatus be left at room temperature and that the pitch be given time to drip through the funnel into the beaker.  That was 1930.  

As at 2012, some 82 years later the experiment is still running.  Professor Parnell has long since departed this mortal coil but his experiment remains sitting proudly in the foyer display cabinet of the building which bears his name alongside the Ig Nobel Prize the experiment received in 2005 for being a prime example of the values “first make them laugh, then make them think” for which the award is bestowed annually.

In the 82 years over which the experiment has been running only 9 drops of pitch have formed and dripped into the beaker.  Interest is expressed almost daily in the experiment from all over the world mostly about when it is thought that the next drop will fall.  The experiment is now recognised as the world’s longest running scientific experiment by the Guinness Book of World Records and with an estimated 100 years or more worth of pitch left in the funnel it is unlikely to be bested for that accolade any time soon.

As scientific curiosities go the University of Queensland Pitch Drop Experiment has much to recommend it particularly if watching paint dry is just too fast paced for you.

You can see the pitch drop experiment live by visiting the St Lucia campus of the University of Queensland or via live streaming video here

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