We’ve Watched This Droplet For 91 Years But Nobody’s Ever Seen it Happen

Have you ever tried watching paint dry? Granted, its not something entertaining. But its certainly equivalent to an action movie for the people who have the patience needed to watch something for decades and still be waiting in anticipation. Lets find out if you have what it takes to join an incredibly dedicated group of viewers. They’ve been waiting decades to see an incredibly bizarre yet important event called the pitch drop experiment you’ve probably never even heard of!

University of Queensland Pitch Drop Experiment

What you see here is the pitch drop experiment.

By John Mainstone, University of Queensland 

After 91 years, its the longest running scientific endeavor according to Guinness World Records. Back In 1927, Thomas Parnell, a professor at the University of Queensland in Australia set out to demonstrate to his students that while some substances appear solid, they’re actually highly viscous fluids.

So, he poured a heated substance called Pitch into a sealed funnel and allowed the material to cool for 3 years.

By The University of Queensland Archives 

Pitch is the term given to a number of natural or manufactured viscoelastic polymers that are derived from plants, petroleum, or coal tar. Bitumen or asphalt are some known forms of pitch. If hit with a hammer it reacts much like glass or tile, giving the impression that it’s solid.

By Burger (left) & ©material-talks.com (top right and bottom right)

Essentially, Professor Parnell heated up a piece of tar and let it cool in a funnel. Then, in 1930, Professor Parnell cut the funnel seal to let the fun begin. Thus began the pitch drop experiment.

With a large glass dome covering the pitch, it was set on display for all to watch as the substance began to form droplets. The trouble is each drop takes close to a decade to fall. But that hasn’t stopped a dedicated following try to witness what seems to be the most elusive event on earth.

Due to various environmental issues and the sheer slowness of the drop itself, the exact timing of each drop is quite unpredictable. So seeing the drop fall and hit the beaker below has been a challenge from the beginning. Not a single person has ever witnessed the event happen, due to various circumstances.

The glass dome sits in a cabinet on display in the foyer of what is now the Parnell Building at Queensland University. So it’s exposed to the room’s air temperature, humidity, and pressure.

©Malvern Panalytical 

In fact, the drops fell at an average rate of just over 8 years. The rate changed when they installed air conditioning in the building after the seventh drop in 1988. This lowered the average temperature in the room causing the drops to slow down. And the current rate of flow produces a drop about every 13 years according to calculations.

via Wikipedia

The experiment is so important, it has its own custodians. In the second half of 1961, Professor John Mainstone took over custody of the experiment. He watched over it for 52 years. He came ever so close to becoming the very first person ever to see the pitch drop as the 7th drop fell in 1988.

©bnps.co.uk

Professor Mainstone, however, was out getting a coffee at Expo88 and returned to find that the pitch had already fallen. There’s a lesson in there somewhere about taking control of your personal vices in favor of life’s bigger mysteries.

Sadly, Professor Mainstone passed away from a stroke in August of 2013 without seeing it drop. Since then, the custodians of the experiment have attempted to video the experiment, to catch it on camera, even if nobody’s there at the time of its falling. However, the 8th drop came down in November of 2000 but nobody has seen it; something went wrong with the equipment and they didn’t catch it then either. That is one sneaky pitch.

Then, 156 months later, on April 12th, 2014, the 9th drop touched the previous drops. But, during a beaker exchange to clear the old mess, the drop broke off as the table wobbled. It happened when the current custodian, Professor Andrew White, removed the glass jar.

The experiment continues though as the next drop is expected to fall any time between 2020 and 2030. At this point, the experiment is on its tenth drop and not one person has ever seen it fall while being in the room with it. Still, the experiment is monitored 24 hours a day 7 days a week by a live internet stream. It has over 35,000 people registered in 160 countries. Thousands more tune in each year.

©University of Queensland

On average, people spend half a day at a time watching. The person who has watched the most, who happens to be from New York, has spent over 491 hours with his eyes glued to the screen at last count. While people watch online, the camera captures visitors as they pose with the pitch. Perhaps they are hoping to be that person who stands next to it when it happens.

©materials-talks

You can even place bets on when it will drop. An Australian Sports betting website has odds for its dropping time. That means you can win some money on what could be the least entertaining event in history. If you don’t have the patience to watch on a constant basis though, you can at least catch up a little on the waiting through a two-year time-lapse video; it shows just how agonizingly slow the pitch moves.

Trinity College Pitch Drop Experiment

While the Queensland Australia pitch drop experiment is the oldest to never be witnessed falling, another similar experiment out of Trinity College in Dublin Ireland finally caught their pitch dropping after 69 years as they captured it on video at around 5:00 pm on July the 13, 2013th.

To date, its the only drop of pitch ever caught on camera or seen by anyone. Their results concluded that pitch has a viscosity of about 2 million times that of honey. Also it is about 20 billion times more viscous than water. So basically, as appetising as it seems, don’t drink asphalt.

Longest Ringing Electric Bell

Aside from the pitch drop experiment, there are other long-running experiments that also need closure. In 1840, an experimental electric bell began ringing and has been chiming almost continuously in the foyer of the Clarendon Laboratory at the University of Oxford ever since.

By DavidCWG

The bell comprises of two voltaic dry piles, which are a form of battery, connected with an insulating layer of sulfur.

Even though its noted to be the world’s most durable battery by The Guinness Book of Records, the exact composition of the dry piles is unknown. Still, researchers are afraid of opening the bell, as it would ruin the experiment to see how long it would last. It will eventually stop ringing when either its clapper wears out or it depletes its electrochemical energy.

During some moments the bell stopped ringing, but it continued on shortly after each pause. If you’re looking for a reliable alarm clock, note that this bell does not have a snooze button. Its been going for nearly 180 years, and so far, has produced approximately 10 billion rings.

The Beverly Clock

Apparently, universities love to display their long-running scientific oddities in their foyers. This is another clock that sits in a foyer at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.

By Mysterious snapper

The name of this device is Beverly Clock. What makes this clock so unusual is that it has not been wound since its creation by Arthur Beverly in 1864. The clock runs on atmospheric and temperature changes as a sealed box inside the clock expands and contracts based on temperature and barometric fluctuations during the day. This pushes on a diaphragm to keep the clock ticking.

A six degree Celsius temperature change will raise a one-pound weight about an inch and as is descends back down, it powers the clock.

Although The Beverly Clock has stopped on various occasions due to cleaning, mechanical malfunction, and long periods of steady temperatures and pressures, it’s the closest anyone has ever come to creating a perpetual motion device, which is a machine that powers itself and continues functioning without intervention. So basically, It’s an impossible piece of technology.

Mount Vesuvius

But long running scientific endeavours don’t just come in the form of clocks and dark drops; they also help us observe the world. For instance, the Vesuvius observatory is the oldest volcanology institute in the world, and has been monitoring mount Vesuvius since 1841, trying to predict its next big blast.

By I, Pastorius

Best known for its massive eruption in 79 AD when it buried the ancient Roman city of Pompeii under a thick blanket of hot ash, Mount Vesuvius remains an active volcano that’s erupted more than 50 times in its lifespan of several hundred thousand years.

By Morn the Gorn

The observation outpost was on the side of the mountain until they moved it to Naples. It had survived a number of eruptions, the last of which occurred in 1944. Thankfully, the eruption watch continues.

Germination Experiment by Willian James Beal

Another long running scientific endeavour that continues today is a germination experiment. Botanist William James Beal initiated it in 1879.

©Internet Archive/ Flickr

He set out to determine whether seeds would sprout after a long period of dormancy by filling 20 bottles with a sand and seed mix from various plants and burying the bottles upside down to keep water out.

He started digging up the bottles, 1 every 5 years to plant the seeds to see if they would grow. As he left a map for future scientists to continue his work, they dug the remaining bottles up once every 20 years. In 2000, 2 out of 21 plant species found in the bottle sprouted with the next bottle planned for 2020. The completion of the experiment set for 2100… I for one can’t wait to see all the results.

© Kurt Stepnitz/Michigan State University

The Old Rotation experiment

Next up, a study that may never end, which began in 1896 on a one-acre plot of land just south of the Auburn University campus in Alabama. The Old Rotation experiment, as it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, shows that a crop of cotton and legumes could support a cotton crop indefinitely with the legumes infusing nitrogen into the soil for the next generation of cotton.

By Saverivers

Up until 1896, cotton producers had difficulty maintaining their cotton yields because the crop would drain the soil of its nutrients. With the help of this experiment, started by Professor J. F. Duggar, we now know that when planting cotton with legumes we can keep the soil rich and the cotton growing.

© Auburn University

The Framingham Heart study

Now lets touch on a long-lasting medical study. The Framingham Heart study has been an ongoing experiment for over 65 years and counting. Dr. Thomas Dawber started it in 1948, under the direction of what was then called the National Heart Institute, in order to identify the common factors that contribute to cardiovascular disease, a leading cause of death in the United States.

By NIH History Office

A total of 5,209 men and women were recruited in the town of Framingham Massachusetts and every two years, the subjects return for a detailed medical review.

©Best Value Schools

In 1971, the study enrolled the next generation of participants as 5,124 of the original group’s adult children and their spouses became part of the medical examinations. By 1994, a second group enrolled to provide a more diverse community from which to gather information. And in 2002, the grandchildren of the original participants became part of the study.

The study has led to significant findings over the years, like identifying early on in the 1960s that cigarette smoking increases your risk of heart disease, and that so called “high normal blood pressure” increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. The study aims to continue researching and discovering new medical breakthroughs about our physical and mental health, attempting to limit and even prevent cardiovascular disease.

That’s great work by the medical team and the entire town of Framingham. I can’t even get to the doctor for an annual medical appointment.

So, which experiment did you find the most interesting? Better yet, let me know about something you’ve waited so long to see but never have. Till next time, thanks for reading!

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