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An Exercise for the Patient

Professor John Mainstone, who Currently Maintains the Experiment

At the University of Queensland they have a Physics experiment that has been going on since 1927. The initial setup alone took three years before the experiment itself could begin in 1930. The experiment is ongoing with no end in sight. Here is the story from the University website:

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, 80 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 picture above is of Professor John Mainstone, who currently maintains the experiment.

There is also a live video available on the website. Not sure how exciting it would be, but it would be pretty cool to see the instant it dropped!

(HT: Robert Getty via Google+)


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