HOW do people get hooked on experiments? Is it through childhood lab kits? Does one explosive triumph with baking soda and vinegar turn them on so much that they vow to keep plugging along, investigating obscurities and inventing items that nobody else thinks are advisable?
As somebody who’s always been puzzled by science, I’ll never understand the urge to set up a situation and then stare at it forever, making detailed notes on minuscule changes that are only going to prove what everybody always assumed to be the case.
Where, for instance, do people find the time and the patience to study what happens when you set a blob of pitch in a funnel and leave it to drip into a beaker? That excruciating exercise has been underway inside a bell jar at the University of Queensland in Brisbane since 1927, when the school’s first professor of physics arranged it. I guess Professor Thomas Parnell was under no pressure to publish the results of his investigation of the fluidity of pitch, since the sample’s still largely lodged in the glass funnel.
The last time a drop of it fell was November, 2000. There’s another due any day now, although nobody has ever witnessed the magic moment.You can try, though, by watching it 24/7 at smp.uq.edu.au/content/pitch-drop-experiment. I took a look. The only action I saw was a second hand inching forward on the adjacent clock.
“If you enjoy gazing at growing grass, you can tune in to what less imaginative souls regard as the most boring experiment ever,” writes the Irish Times. By “less imaginative souls,” the newspaper means almost everybody besides Parnell; Professor John Mainstone, who’s the university’s current pitch custodian; and the three deceased Irish-born scientists who started conducting versions of this research in 1887.
It began with William Thompson, later Lord Kelvin, setting up an experiment using pitch -- also known as “Scotch cobblers’ wax” -- which supposedly has a hundred billion times the viscosity of water. (Sure -- whatever.) Thompson placed a dollop of it on a mahogany slide to demonstrate that “small force can produce a large change in the shape of a substance over a long period,” as the Irish Times explains it. By sitting on a lemon for an hour, I could prove the same thing; I just don’t want to.
Apparently this experiment is ongoing at the Hunterian museum at Glasgow University, 126 years later. Some of us would have scraped up the pitch at least a century ago, thrown it at the wall, and gone out for a drink. But one is led to believe that Lord Kelvin is still lying in his grave waiting for the sound of the last droplet to roll.
Other Irish scientists followed suit, one of them University of Cambridge applied mathematician Sir George Gabriel Stokes, who developed equations that the Times says form the basis of modern fluid dynamics. His pitch project earned his conclusions the moniker “Stokes flow,” which I personally wouldn’t have considered an honour, but then, I’m a woman, and “flow” means something much less intriguing for us.
Owens College professor of engineering Osborne Reynolds rounded out the Irish pitchmen. According to the Times, his experiments, which resulted in a ratio called the “Reynolds number,” demonstrated the sudden change in fluid motion from regular form to more chaotic once “the critical value of a certain ratio is exceeded.”
The lesson I myself would have taken from all these efforts? Don’t expect much excitement from pitch. That’s just one reason I’m not a scientist, or a Kate of Late blog reader who’s now going to write an indignant e-mail describing how Stokes flow and the Reynolds number affect everything, including the rate of ice cream cone production at my local DQ. Gentlefolk, stop your engines. I really won’t understand a word you say.
Eccentric though they may have been, at least the pitch enthusiasts didn’t waste their time inventing conveniences like the bulletproof rucksack. The Guardian reports that, in lieu of gun control, some Americans have now decided to send their children to school wearing a 1.5 kg. backpack that’s lined with ballistic material, capable of stopping a bullet that’s travelling 400 m. per second. More than a dozen Colorado schools are also said to be in discussions with the rucksack’s manufacturer, Elite Sterling Security, regarding ballistic safety vests for emergency use.
Speaking of idiotic solutions to predictable problems, a new product has been invented to help toddlers be more amenable to potty time. In a Mail Online story about children addicted to smartphones and “tablets,” I learned of a new device called an iPotty. It’s a training toilet with an attached iPod dock, so Junior never has to spend a minute away from the online babble we fatuously call “the conversation.”
Of course, we adults long ago figured out a way to avoid introspective thought, so constantly engrossed in our gadgets are we. Realizing that fact suddenly makes me relish the provocative interaction of science kits, and even the joy of watching dull, quiet pitch behaving itself properly, century after century.