Sometimes science experiments don't always go as planned. For example, back in 1927 it is likely physics professor Thomas Parnell never expected his demonstration of viscous liquids to last eight-five years — long past his death — to continue on and eventually be broadcast via webcam for years to come.
Parnell was trying to show students at the University of Queensland that tar pitch — a derivative of coal — while brittle enough to be shattered with a hammer is actually a liquid. Despite what it looks like, it actually will flow at room temperature. Just really sloooooowly…
Parnell melted the pitch, put it in a funnel, let it cool for three years and hung the funnel over a beaker and waited to prove his point. Clearly this was a guy with an end game in mind.
It took eight years for a drop of pitch to roll from the funnel's stem into the beaker. The next drop fell nine years after that. Parnell never lived to see the next drop, in 1954.
Yet, the experiment continued — even if it was relegated to a closet.
Professor John Mainstone joined the University of Queensland physics department in 1961 and when a colleague pointed out the ancient experiment, housed by a bell jar he was hooked. He lobbied for the experiment to go on display, but in a manner befitting the experiment itself, permission was granted very slooooooowly…around 1975.
It seems University officials thought no one would want to see the pitch drop experiment. Oh how they were wrong, as now it is the star of its own webcam.
Despite a laser like focus on this experiment in more recent times, no one has ever seen a drop fall. The most recent drop fell on November 28, 2000 and sadly, there was a camera malfunction when it happened.
Fair warning to all of the science geeks out there who are bookmarking the webcam, Mainstone says it is impossible to predict when a drop will fall and the periods in between are likely to grow longer. Gases in the pitch have escaped and the weight of the pitch in the funnel has decreased.
Mainstone is betting on 2013 for the next drop to fall and he told PopSci, "It has at least 100 years left if someone doesn't throw it out."
Eighty-five years and counting for a science experiment is a good run even if decades of college students have long forgotten what the point was in the first place.