The Pitch Drop Experiment
Pictures above: (1) Longtime custodian of the famous experiment, Professor John Mainstone. (2) Three webcams trained on the experiment 24/7. (3) The Pitch Drop Experiment. (4) Close up of the pitch drop.
The first Professor of Physics at The University of Queensland, Professor Thomas Parnell, began an experiment in 1927 to illustrate that everyday materials can exhibit quite surprising properties. The experiment demonstrates the fluidity and high viscosity of pitch, a derivative of tar once used for waterproofing boats. At room temperature pitch feels solid - even brittle - and can easily be shattered with a blow from a hammer. It's quite amazing then, to see that pitch at room temperature is actually fluid!
In 1927 Professor Parnell heated a sample of pitch and poured it into a glass funnel with a sealed stem. Three years were allowed for the pitch to settle, and in 1930 the sealed stem was cut. From that date on the pitch has slowly dripped out of the funnel - so slowly that now, 83 years later, the ninth drop is only just forming.
The experiment was set up as a demonstration and is not kept under special environmental conditions (it is actually kept in a display cabinet in the foyer of the Department), so the rate of flow of the pitch varies with seasonal changes in temperature. Nonetheless, it is possible to make an estimate of the viscosity of this sample of pitch (R. Edgeworth, B.J. Dalton and T. Parnell, Eur. J. Phys (1984) 198-200). It turns out to be about 100 billion times more viscous than water! The first picture in the slide show above is of Professor John Mainstone, longtime custodian of the experiment.
In the 83 years that the pitch has been dripping no-one has ever seen the drop fall. If you're interested in trying your luck, or at least just having a look at the experiment, you can watch the live view below. You can also see students of The University of Queensland milling around outside the cabinet, so it is more exciting than watching grass grow!
Timelapse video of the Pitch Drop (28th April 2012 - 10th April 2013)
The following 10-second time-lapse video captures the descent of the imminent 9th drop between the period of 28th April 2012 to 10th April 2013.
- Picture, right: Pitch, before and after being hit with a hammer.
- Some other links: If you're interested in more old stuff, have a browse through the Physics Museum.
- Click here to view a comment from Professor John Mainstone in response to an amusing article by Mark Henderson in The Times (7/6/01), which then appeared in The Weekend Australian (9-10/6/01).
- For more information about the Pitch Drop Experiment, contact Professor John S. Mainstone (email@example.com)