Slow Science: The Pitch Drop Experiment

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Is life moving too quickly for you?

Would you like everything to just slow down a little?

Then may I suggest the University of Queensland’s livestream of the Pitch Drop Experiment?

The scientific equivalent of watching paint dry only without the fumes, the Pitch Drop Experiment began in 1927 and was devised to show that ordinary objects have extraordinary properties.

The object (or rather substance) in this case is pitch, a black, tar derivative once used to waterproof boats.

Pitch is an odd egg because “it looks like a solid but it behaves like a liquid.” In other words, you can smash it with a hammer into a million little pieces but, when exposed to the forces of gravity and a whole lot of time, it will (eventually) drip.

Pitch is over 100 billion times more viscous than water and is also the origin of the expression “pitch black.”

You’re welcome.

To demonstrate its contradictory properties, physics professor Thomas Parnell heated pitch and poured it into a glass, sealed funnel.

Then, after giving it three years to cool and solidify, he cut the tip off the funnel and suspended it over a glass beaker where it would, 8 years later, drop.

I wish I knew what I was looking at. Alas, I am but a lady in olden times.”
University of Queensland Physics Museum

Though not as famous as Galileo’s Leaning Tower of Pisa Experiment nor as mouth-watering as Pavlov’s Dogs, The Pitch Drop Experiment is notable for being ‘The World’s Longest Continuously Running Laboratory Experiment’.

Now, because I don’t want to be shanked by a disgruntled scientist, it must be pointed out that this is NOT the same thing as the longest running scientific experiment. Furthermore, it is a title bestowed by the Guinness Book of World Records, who also award prizes for “World’s Widest Mouth” and “World’s Oldest Male Stripper.” So, whilst a legitimate organisation, they may not have the final say on the matter.

Nevertheless, to put things in perspective, this experiment has continued through some of the most important events in modern history, like:


the Cold War (parts one and two),

the collapse of the Soviet Union,

the beginning and end of Apartheid in South Africa,

and the rise, fall, and re-emergence of the mullet haircut.

Pictured: history
Getty Images

Interestingly, in over 90 years, the pitch has only dropped 9 times and every single one of those “touch down” moments were missed by the custodians of the experiment.

Professor Thomas Parnell passed away never having seen a single drop fall and his successor, John Mainstone, missed every drop over the next 52 years. One of them by 5 minutes.

Legend says he stepped out for a coffee when it happened.

I really hope it was a good cup of coffee.
Photo by Irina Babina on Unsplash

In November of 2000, the 8th drop, um, dropped.

This time the University was ready. They set up a webcam to document the auspicious event. Unfortunately, there was a technical glitch and once again the moment was missed.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

For the ninth drop in 2014, the University weren’t taking any chances. They had a livestream running and were recording around the clock. This time they were going to document history.

However, (are you sensing a pattern yet?), even though it was being monitored on a live feed, no one bothered to notice that the glass beaker, which hadn’t been changed since the experiment began, was quite full.

This lead to the ninth drop not so much dropping as resting gently on top of the previous drops.

It was, in a word, underwhelming.

Today, the physics department is preparing for the tenth drop, which according to their calculations should occur some time in the 2020s.

The livestream is running, they got the cleaner in to change the beaker, and bought their own coffee machine (probably).

All they have to do now is watch and wait…

“We’re ready.”
Photo by Aleksandra Sapozhnikova on Unsplash

This time, let’s hope that someone from the university actually gets to witness the very, very long-awaited drop.

Because if they don’t, it’s going to result in the loudest expletive anyone’s ever heard.

I wonder if Guinness have an award for that?

IT’S ON THE LIST: Museo Galileo, Florence, Italy



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