Thursday, June 06, 2013

Why a simple experiment like "The Pitch Drop Experiment" is important today

The School of Mathematics and Physics in the University of Queensland has been running an experiment since 1927 that shows that some materials behave differently from what we expect. The Pitch drop Experiment was set up by Professor Thomas Parnell to show that what appears to be a solid, pitch, is actually a liquid at room temperature. 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 fully formed (University of Queensland, 2013). 

No one has seen any of the previous eight drops fall, so there is a webcam on the experiment to capture the next imminent fall of a drop of pitch. Pitch shatters into small pieces if you hit a  block of it with a hammer. Nevertheless, it is a liquid but is about 100,000,000,000,000 times more viscous than water! Check out the video below with the current custodian of the Pitch Drop Experiment, Professor John Mainstone:

So - why do I think this is important today?

Science disciplines of every branch, including computer science, need to attract more young people to study. To want to study science, you need to have a curious mind, and experiments like the Pitch Drop are just what is needed to instill curiosity into young minds. Hopefully they can look at this and ask: Why is this experiment running so long? Why does pitch work like this? What is going on here? Who set this up? Will I see the drop fall?

So many questions, the foundation of curiosity, can be asked, which will make the curious mind want more. Thanks to technology, anyone in the world can view and find out about experiments like this - we need more iconic experiments to keep up the interest, and curiosity.

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