World’s Longest Running Experiment

86 years, and counting ! Yes, you read that right. World’s longest running experiment has completed 86 years running so far.

588px-Pitch_drop_experiment_with_John_MainstoneThe pitch drop experiment is a long-term experiment which measures the flow of a piece of pitch over many years. Pitch is the name for any of a number of highly viscous liquids which appear solid, most commonly bitumen. At room temperature, tar pitch flows at a very slow rate, taking several years to form a single drop.

The most famous version of the experiment was started in 1927 by Professor Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, to demonstrate to students that some substances that appear to be solid are in fact very-high-viscosity fluids. Parnell poured a heated sample of pitch into a sealed funnel and allowed it to settle for three years. In 1930, the seal at the neck of the funnel was cut, allowing the pitch to start flowing. A glass dome covers the funnel and it is placed on display outside a lecture theatre. Large droplets form and fall over the period of about a decade.

The eighth drop fell on 28 November 2000, allowing experimenters to calculate that the pitch has a viscosity approximately 230 billion (2.3×1011) times that of water.

This is recorded in Guinness World Records as the world’s longest (continuously) running (laboratory) experiment, and it is expected that there is enough pitch in the funnel to allow it to continue for at least another hundred years. This experiment is predated by two other still-active scientific devices, the Oxford Electric Bell (1840) and the Beverly Clock (1864), but each of these have experienced brief interruptions since 1937.

The experiment was not originally carried out under any special controlled atmospheric conditions, meaning that the viscosity could vary throughout the year with fluctuations in temperature. Some time after the seventh drop fell in 1988, air conditioning was added to the location where the experiment takes place. The temperature stability has lengthened each drop’s stretch before it separates from the rest of the pitch in the funnel.

In October 2005, John Mainstone and the late Thomas Parnell were awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Physics, a parody of the Nobel Prize, for the pitch drop experiment. John Mainstone, has died at the age of 78, on August 23, 2013.