Longest Continuously Running Experiment – 83 Years and Counting

By Anupum Pant

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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)

Other unbelievable materials previously covered in this series – Aerogels and Superhydrophobic surfaces.

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.

  1. 1979 – He missed it because he wasn’t in the laboratory for the weekend.
  2. 1988 – Missed it because he went out for a tea break.
  3. 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.

The Red Rain of Kerala

By Anupum Pant

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In the year 2001, between 25th July and 25th September, people from the Indian state of Kerela (Kottayam and Idukki districts) experienced a bizarre oddity – The Red Rain of Kerala. Sporadic heavy downpours of mysteriously colored water left the people of Kerala dazed. More recently, red rains were also seen in parts of Sri Lanka between 15th November and 27th December, 2012.

Yellow, Black and Green rains have also been reported several times since 1896.

Red Rain of Kerala – Studies

A study conducted in India showed that the rain was colored because these raindrops contained millions of spherical and oval red particles which had an internal structure. These things looked like biological cells. Initially, when scientists weren’t able to confirm the existence of DNA (a fact which has baffled scientists) in them, in spite of an internal structure present in the cells, some started claiming that the origin of these red particles was extraterrestrial, possibly, coming from an exploded meteor.

Later the mystery was solved, the presence of DNA was confirmed and a study, destroying popular media claims, concluded that the red rain of Kerala had been colored due to airborne spores originating from a type of algae. There was nothing alien about it.

The unusual color of the rain was due to the presence of a unicellular micro-organism belonging to Kingdom Protista, of the Phylum Euglenozoa, known as Trachelomonas. Trachelomonas was the main cause of reddish downpours in other regions of the world as well.

[Source: The Red Rain of Kerala]

Why Do Bad Eggs Float?

By Anupum Pant

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Instead of cracking up an egg which has been stored for a long time, to end up disgusted by the ‘rotten egg smell’, or the smell of a gas called Hydrogen Sulfide, a simple and a fairly well known way to check if an egg has gone bad, is to drop it in a glass of water and see if it floats. I found out about this first, from an article written at Frugal Living, and spent some time to confirm its claims – Bad eggs float.
If you take my word for it (you should!), it really does work. The article describes this three-point test to find out if an egg is good to eat.

  1. If the egg sinks and lies on its side, it is a fresh one. It is good enough to be eaten.
  2. If it sinks and stands up on a point, or is at an angle, it is good enough. You can still use it up for making hard-cooked eggs or bake it.
  3. But, if an egg floats, it needs to be discarded.

Why does this happen?

To understand, you’ll have to think of a chick – a young chicken.

Poor Chicks: Before chickens come out of the egg, they develop lungs and need oxygen to breath. Sitting inside a sealed egg, with no cords attached, for the chick to survive, oxygen has to come in from somewhere. For that, let us look inside.

Egg Science: The outer shell of an egg has two membranes under it. When an egg is laid, it is warm and starts cooling which contracts the inner part of the egg more than the shell and pulls the two membranes apart. As a result, air gets trapped in between the membranes (not enough air initially for it to float).

How does the air come in? The shell of an egg isn’t as simple as it looks. It has about 7000 tiny pores in that shell which let the air pass in and let the carbon dioxide pass out of it. This is how the chick breathes. And the reason, eggs boiled in colored water during Easter, get colored from the inside.

So, as there are pores present in the shell, bacteria enter the egg and start decaying the biological matter inside. This produces a smelly gas (and other gases too), Hydrogen Sulfide (also present in smelly farts). The gases from this decomposition, and the air from outside, keep increasing in volume as time passes.

Corollary: This is exactly what explains these floating bad eggs – Greater the amount of gas inside, older is the egg and the better it floats in water.

Side note: Egg shells and the two membranes inside have the ability to stop the invasion of micro-organisms and bacteria, but over time bacteria manage to enter.