By Anupum Pant
An experiment so slow that a professor overseeing it, died without having seen the results for half a century! The Pitch Drop experiment, started by Professor Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland in the year 1930, is the probably slowest science experiment and also holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s longest continuously running experiment ever.
What is the experiment?
It is an experiment designed to measure the flow of a solid looking piece (image) which is actually an extremely viscous liquid (actually a Viscoelastic Polymer) with a viscosity of approximately 230 billion times that of water. The name used for this class of extremely viscous liquids is, Pitch – Bitumen, Asphalt, Resin and Rosin are a few examples (not Glass). These things are so viscous that you can strike them with a hammer and see them shatter into sharp flakes (like glass), but it flows. The experiment is explained in detail, in the first few minutes of this radio show attached below. (the second half is pretty interesting too, but that is for some other day)
Side note: The overseer of this experiment, Prof. John Mainstone actually lived through the drops of pitch falling three times, but unfortunately missed watching it happen every time (for 3 times in 50 years). In all, 8 drops have fallen since 1930.
- 1979 – He missed it because he wasn’t in the laboratory for the weekend.
- 1988 – Missed it because he went out for a tea break.
- 2000 – A camera was installed as a precautionary measure, the equipment malfunctioned; missed again!
He recently died waiting to see it in action. Since then, three web cameras have been installed as a fool proof measure to record the extremely rare event. You can watch it happening online here, although you might have to wait for several years to see it happening. (To confirm the live stream, look at that clock in in it and confirm with time here). There is also a time-lapse from 28th April 2012 – 10th April 2013 compressed into a 10-second-long video of the drop forming, embedded below.
A parallel experiment running at Trinity College, Dublin also wasn’t able to capture the rare scientific event on camera in spite of several drops falling since the commissioning of the experiment (1944). Finally, after 70 years of patient wait, on July 11, 2013 it was recorded on camera.