The pitch has dropped – again. This time, the glimpse of a falling blob of tar, also called pitch, represents the first result for the world’s longest-running experiment.
Sadly however, the glimpse comes too late for a former custodian, who watched over the experiment for more than half a century and died a year ago.
Up-and-running since 1930, the experiment is based at the University of Queensland in Australia and seeks to capture blobs of pitch as they drip down, agonisingly slowly, from their parent bulk.
It was pipped to the post last year when a similar experiment, set up in 1944 at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, captured the first ever video footage of a blob of pitch dropping.
In that instance, the blob separated from its parent bulk. By contrast, the Australian team filmed the collision between the ninth blob ever to fall and the eighth blob, which was sitting at the bottom of their beaker – but the ninth blob is still attached to the pitch above it.
Still, the Australian result is important because the experiment has a better set-up, says Stefan Hutzler, a member of the Trinity College Dublin team who used those results to calculate the pitch’s viscosity. “Theirs is in a glass container; they measure the temperature, measure the humidity as well,” he says. “Ours, we don’t really call it an experiment. It was really just sitting there on a shelf, going back to the 1940s.”
The fact that both experiments dropped within a year of each other is “just pure luck”, says Hutzler. Hot summer weather in Ireland last year may have influenced the timing.
The Queensland experiment already features in the Guinness World Recordsand won an IgNobel prize in 2005. It was set up by physicist Thomas Parnell to illustrate that although pitch appears solid, shattering when hit with a hammer at room temperature, it is actually a very viscous liquid.
The eventual result follows several near misses, according to the University of Queensland. John Mainstone, who oversaw the experiment for more than 50 years until his death last August, missed observing the drops fall three times – by a day in 1977, by just five minutes in 1988 and, perhaps most annoying, in 2000, when the webcam that was recording it was hit by a 20-minute power outage.
“It’s a pity of course that the person in charge died about a year ago, so he never saw the drop,” Hutzler says. “He would have enjoyed that.”
The eighth and ninth drops each took about 13 years to fall, says current custodian Andrew White. By contrast, the seven drops that fell between 1930 and 1988 did so faster – at an average rate of one drop every eight years.
The next step is to see how long it takes the ninth drop to separate from the pitch above it: “It may tip over quickly or it might slow right down and take years to break away,” says White.
You can keep an eye on the ninth drop’s movements via a live web stream. The University of Queensland says it will work out who was watching when the pitch dropped and record their names for posterity.
The drop experiments show that the physics of a drop forming in a viscous material is still not well understood, Hutzler says – although he doesn’t think watching pitch for decades is necessarily the best way to study it. Using honey or some other less viscous fluid would give you better statistics.
“I think these experiments capture the imagination just because they go on for such a long time,” he says. The video of the drop in Dublin quickly went viral on YouTube. “Ironically, you have a very slow event happening, but the news spreads very quickly.”