The pitch drop experiment is a long-term experiment which measures the flow of a piece of pitch over many years. Pitch is the name for any of a number of highly viscous liquids which appear solid, most commonly bitumen. At room temperature, tar pitch flows at a very slow rate, taking several years to form a single drop.
The most famous version of the experiment was started in 1927 by Professor Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, to demonstrate to students that some substances that appear to be solid are in fact very-high-viscosity fluids. Parnell poured a heated sample of pitch into a sealed funnel and allowed it to settle for three years. In 1930, the seal at the neck of the funnel was cut, allowing the pitch to start flowing. Large droplets form and fall over the period of about a decade. The eighth drop fell on 28 November 2000, allowing experimenters to calculate that the pitch has a viscosity approximately 230 billion times that of water.
This is recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s longest continuously running laboratory experiment, and it is expected that there is enough pitch in the funnel to allow it to continue for at least another hundred years. To date, no one has ever actually witnessed a drop fall.
The image above features The University of Queensland pitch drop experiment with its current custodian, Professor John Mainstone (taken in 1990, two years into the eighth drop).
Credit: John Mainstone and The University of Queensland