My Latest Obsession

It’s official. I’m easily entertained. You’ve heard of things being as boring as watching paint dry. Well, I’ll go one further. I like to watch pitch drop.

Pitch, or in this case, bitumen, which is one type of pitch, feels like a solid. And it acts like a solid…at first glance. Or your first million glances, probably. But it actually flows like a liquid. It just takes its sweet time doing it.

I was really intrigued when I heard about the pitch drop experiment on NPR’s Radiolab. Going on for 86 years now, this is the longest running science experiment in the history of mankind. It’s simple. A professor at the University of Queensland put some heated pitch in a closed funnel and let it cool for three years. Then, in 1930, the funnel was cut… and… 8 years later… the first drop of pitch finally fell. And one drop has fallen about every 8 years since then until around 1988, when the building in which it was housed got air conditioning. Now it’s taking about 12 years for the pitch to drop.

At that rate, the next drop won’t fall until around 2026, give or take a couple of years. But you can watch it on live feed here. And if you happen to be logged in and watching when it finally does drop, your name will go down in history. Because, here’s the thing: No one has witnessed any of the 9 previous drops actually fall.

On the Radiolab podcast you can listen to an interview with John Mainstone, the professor who inherited the experiment from the original professor, Thomas Parnell. I kind of feel sorry for Professor Mainstone, because he came close to seeing the pitch drop 3 times.

The first time, it was looking like it was about to drop on a weekend, so he came in to check it on Saturday, and it still hadn’t fallen. But he didn’t go in on Sunday, and when he got there on Monday, it had already fallen. Can you imagine the frustration?

Then, for drop 8, he was out of the country, but he wasn’t worried, because they had video cameras set up by then. Unfortunately, when the pitch dropped that time, the cameras malfunctioned and no one saw it. I think if I were him I would have wept.

Professor Mainstone passed away just 8 months before drop 9 finally descended. By pitch standards, that’s a mere blink of an eye. He waited for that pitch to drop his entire professional life. He was 78 when he passed away. The experiment was taken over by Professor Andrew White.

I think this experiment is less about pitch and more about patience. And inevitability. And the passage of time. It kind of puts things in perspective for me. That drop of pitch could care less about a 4 year presidential term. It has “seen” wars come and go. It has seen the Berlin wall go up and down. And it still flows imperceptibly toward that beaker.

So, check out the live feed! You might think it’s a static photo, but they were kind enough to put a clock beside it so that you can see the second hand moving. And if you’re lucky, you might watch the occasional student walk past, which feels like a flurry of activity, believe you me, after staring at that drop of pitch.

I do like the fact that the website rates you amongst the many other obsessive watchers of this shiny black drop. And for some reason I have yet to figure out, there always seems to be seventeen of us logged on at any given time. I wish there was a chat feature, because I’d love to know who these people are. In the meantime, I just watch.

Hardly exciting, I have to admit. Right now there 1,353 people who have put in more time staring at this thing than I have. You’d think that would be comforting. But I keep creeping up the ranks.  And…gaaaaaaah! I can’t stop logging in! Help!

The late Professor John Mainstone with the pitch drop experiment.

Need something to read while watching the pitch drop? Claim your copy of my book!


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