Watch the Single Drip Scientists Have Been Waiting to See For Decades

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
July 18 2013 5:58 PM

The Single Drip Scientists Have Been Waiting the Better Part of a Century for Just Dropped

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

Science lovers are aflutter today over the above video, which may not look like much—OK, definitely doesn't look like much—until I tell you some people have been waiting for the better part of a century to lay eyes on the long-elusive "pitch drop" captured in the time-lapse footage you just watched with almost infinitely less of a time investment.

I won't pretend like I was even mildly aware of this until a more science-savvy colleague flagged it for me this afternoon, so I'll let Nature explain the back story behind the simple experiment that's developed its own cult-following thanks to a series of absurdly near misses in the past:

The Dublin pitch-drop experiment was set up in 1944 at Trinity College Dublin to demonstrate the high viscosity or low fluidity of pitch — also known as bitumen or asphalt — a material that appears to be solid at room temperature, but is in fact flowing, albeit extremely slowly.
It is a younger and less well-known sibling of an experiment that has been running since 1927 at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, which Guinness World Records lists as the world’s longest-running laboratory experiment. Physicist Thomas Parnell set it up because he wanted to illustrate that everyday materials can exhibit surprising properties.
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OK, still a little fourth-period-science-class boring, I admit. But where things get good is when you learn about all the close calls suffered by researchers during the years before technology allowed them to basically just DVR the whole thing. Megan Garber, who does a truly great job capturing the excitement around the drop heard 'round the science world, details some of the more painful misses over at the Atlantic. (Seriously, go read her short piece; in contains lines like this: "Watching, after all, is separate from seeing.") Those misses, in turn, were all the more painful because on average a typical professional pitch-drop experiment delivers the goods about once per decade, something that played a large part in explaining why no one had ever seen a drop before. So when you step out for 15 minutes to grab tea, as a Queensland professor did once, you're probably never going to be able to enjoy Earl Grey again after you come back to discover you managed to miss something you've been holding your breath for for the past 10 years.

Also in Slate: the original University of Queensland experiment.

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