In Print: Pitch Drop Experiment Tests Our Patience

The Newscripts blog would like to be closer Internet buddies with our glossy print Newscripts column, so here we highlight what’s going on in the current issue of C&EN.

Wait for it: This pitch has an incredibly slow windup. Credit: Shane Bergin/Trinity College Dublin

They say that good things come to those who wait. This is not true for John S. Mainstone. For 52 years, the University of Queensland, Australia, professor has been hoping to one day see a drop of pitch, which is a derivative of tar, fall to Earth. And for 52 years, Mainstone has been fruitless in his efforts. All that, however, may soon change. As C&EN associate editor Emily Bones writes in this week's Newscripts column, Mainstone's pitch drop experiment--in which pitch is monitored as it slowly descends from the top of a glass funnel--will soon result in a drop of pitch actually falling. And to make sure no one, especially Mainstone, misses this magical event, the university has set up a live webcam to monitor the experiment. Because of pitch's viscoelasticity, which results in the material exhibiting both viscous and elastic properties, more than a decade can pass between individual drops, thus makes the impending drop especially exciting. What's more, the impending drop could not come at better time for Mainstone, who is still attending to the salt that was rubbed into his wounds on July 11 when a replica of the pitch drop experiment at Trinity College Dublin actually captured, for the first time ever, a pitch drop on film. This event, recorded by Trinity physicist Shane Bergin and colleagues, can be seen in the video below. “The existence of the Trinity College Dublin pitch drop experiment was certainly a great surprise to me--and apparently even to the locals in Dublin, too," says Mainstone, who tormented himself by watching the replica's video "over and over again" for "many hours." Don't feel too bad for Mainstone, though. As he tells Newscripts, there is definitely room for improving upon Trinity's pitch drop. "It was certainly a disappointment to me that their drop was so large that it 'bottomed' in the apparatus and thus led to the final rupture being generated bilaterally,” he says. Here's hoping that when Mainstone finally does see his pitch drop, it lives up to the expectations that he has been building up for 52 year long years.

Author: Jeff Huber

Jeff Huber is an associate editor at C&EN. He enjoys finding peculiar news stories that make him laugh and/or tilt his head in a thoughtful manner. This hobby has served him well as a contributor to the Newscripts blog.

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