While the School of Mathematics and Physics at the University of Queensland has an international reputation forcutting-edge research and innovative teaching in the disciplines of Mathematics, Physics and Statistics, it is also home to the famous Pitch drop experiment. The experiment is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's longest-running laboratory experiment. The first professor of physics at UQ, Professor Thomas Parnell, began an experiment in 1927 to illustrate that everyday materials can exhibit quite surprising properties. The experiment demonstrates the fluidity and high viscosity of pitch, a derivative of tar once used for waterproofing boats. At room temperature pitch feels solid – even brittle – and can easily be shattered with a blow from a hammer. It's quite amazing then, to see that pitch at room temperature is actually fluid! 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. The experiment was set up as a demonstration and is not kept under special environmental conditions (it is actually kept in a display cabinet in the foyer of the department), so the rate of flow of the pitch varies with seasonal changes in temperature. Nonetheless, it is possible to make an estimate of the viscosity of this sample of pitch (Edgeworth, R.; Dalton, B. J.; Parnell, T. 1984. The pitch drop experiment. European Journal of Physics 5/4. 198-200.). It turns out to be about 100 billion times more viscous than water! In the 83 years that the pitch has been dripping, no-one has ever seen the drop fall.
R. Edgeworth (AU), B.J. Dalton (AU) and T. Parnel (AU) The pitch drop experiment
Scientific experiment, 1927-