Friday, April 18, 2014

Wait for it, Watch for it and You Could Make History

When it moves,
Tens of thousands tune in to watch.

People invented the term pitch-black for it,
Because black was not good enough.

If it touched you,
you might end up in a hospital.

It generates viral videos on YouTube
by doing absolutely nothing.


“I don’t always drip, but when I do the crowd goes wild,” the University of Queensland’s Pitch Drop Experiment would say if it could speak.

There are a handful of pitch drop experiments around the world, but none as old as the one at the University of Queensland in Australia. In fact, theirs is the world’s longest running laboratory experiment. Now in its 86th year of existence, the pitch drop is at it again, generating headlines.

You should know that this might be the most anticlimactic thing you ever watch. The experiment consists of a funnel filled with a black substance called pitch. About once every decade the pitch will drip.

Last year, the world tuned in to watch the ninth drip form. Not fall. Form. More than 13 months later, the tear-shaped droplet is still hanging on. Yesterday, it moved a few centimeters to merge with the eighth drop. You can see the momentous event, 13 months in the making, below.

         

In the last 86 years, no one has ever witnessed a drop fall from this pitch drop experiment.

The recent merging of the ninth drop with the eighth is a sure sign that the drop will fall, and if you see it when it falls in real time, "your name will make the official record and make history," according to The Ninth Watch website. The website offers live video streaming of the experiment, and if you're logged in when the ninth drop falls, then your name will forever be associated with the experiment that never ends.

Picture of the Pitch Drop Experiment
at the University of Queensland,
with 9-volt battery for size comparison.
Credit: University of Queensland
The late professor Andrew White first designed and developed the pitch drop experiment in 1927. His purpose was to show that solids can act like liquids. Today, the experiment is more of a tourist attraction than a source of scientific study.

Pitch is a type of viscoelastic polymer, meaning that it flows like honey and is elastic like spandex. Although it may look and act like a solid at room temperature, it is, in fact, a liquid. Heat it up to temperatures above 500 degrees Fahrenheit and it will adopt a more fluid form.

In fact, pitch was one of the early forms of thermal weapons. During the classic and medieval periods, soldiers would throw hot pitch, as well as oil and boiling water, on their enemies.

Pitch takes so long to drip because it is incredible viscous. The viscosity of peanut butter at room temperature is about 27,000 times that of water. Pitch is 10,000 times more viscous than peanut butter making it 200 billion times more viscous than water.

Place a peanut butter drop experiment next to the pitch drop and the peanut butter-filled funnel will empty before the pitch even forms a single drop.



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