Friday, March 15, 2013

The Ultimate Experiment in Patience and Anticipation

The pitch drop experiment. What the heck is that? Maybe it should it be called the dripping pitch experiment. Pitch dripping? Isn't pitch a solid? Actually it's not. It is a viscoelastic polymer derived from tar or petroleum. It's so viscous that you can hit it with a hammer and it will shatter (sounds like a solid right?).  But looks can be deceiving. It is called a viscoelastic polymer because although it may appear to be solid it is actually a liquid. The crazy world we live in, right...

As a student, the idea that a solid is actually a liquid can be hard to grasp. It goes against everything you were taught in grade school. An object is either a solid, a liquid, or a gas; there is no in between. Well now that we are all grown ups (yeah what's that?) we know that the world is not just black and white, there's lots of grey in between and one professor set out to demonstrate one such thing.

Professor Thomas Parnell was the first professor of Physics at the University of Queensland. In 1927 he set out to demonstrate that in this amazing and crazy world we live in some things are not quite what they seem. He wanted to show his students that although pitch appeared solid it actually has liquid properties at room temperature. So how did he go about doing this? Well, Professor Parnell heated a sample of pitch and poured it into a sealed funnel. He allowed the pitch to set for 3 years then cut the sealed stem on the funnel allowing the pitch to flow from the funnel (you know, since it is a liquid and all). Ever since then the pitch has dripped, very slowly, from the funnel. The very first drop fell in 1938. After 83 years, it is only on the 9th drop! Holy viscoelastic polymer, Batman! The ultimate experiment in patience, taking so long to complete that even after 83 years there is still no end in sight.

I haven't even gotten to the best part yet! After 83 years there is still no recording of the pitch actually dropping. In fact, no one has ever seen it drop in the entire 83 years that the experiment has been going on!  They almost caught the eight drop using video surveillance but as luck would have it the video feed failed at the time of the drop. So maybe you will be the lucky one that gets to watch the 9th drop fall and hold the title (and all its glory) of one of the few people in the world that witnessed something that has eluded so many people for over 80 years. Who knows, you may be watching at the perfect time. The link to the live video feed is below and may the odds be ever in your favor!

The Pitch Drop Experiment Live Feed (scroll to the bottom of the page to see the live video feed)

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