The 85 Year Experiment

Another fascinating article, this time from instant fundas.

The pitch drop experiment began in 1927 when Professor Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, set out to demonstrate to his students that some substances that appear to be solid are in fact very high viscous fluids. He used tar pitch, a derivative of coal once used to waterproof boats, in an experiment to prove his point. At room temperature, pitch appears to be solid and can even shatter if hit with a hammer, but despite its look and feel, pitch can also flow at room temperature, albeit extremely slowly.


For his experiment, Parnell melted some pitch into a glass funnel with a sealed stem and allowed it to cool for three years. In 1930 he cut the sealed stem, hung the funnel over a beaker, and waited. It took eight year before the first drop fell into the beaker and another nine years before the second drop hit. Parnell didn’t live to see the third drop fall in 1954, as he passed away in September 1948. By then, the experiment was stored away in a cupboard of the physics department.


The Pitch Drop Experiment with its current custodian, John Mainstone in a picture taken in 1990.


The pitch-drop experiment might have fallen into obscurity had it not been for John Mainstone, who joined the University of Queensland physics department in 1961. One day a colleague said, “I’ve got something weird in this cupboard here” and presented Mainstone with the funnel, beaker and pitch, all housed under a bell jar. Mainstone asked the department head to display it for the school’s science and engineering students, but he was told that nobody wanted to see it. Finally, around 1975, Mainstone persuaded the department to publicly display the experiment in a cabinet in the foyer of the department building.

The experiment that carries on beyond death. Sometimes you just don't have the time to see what something is really like. The current life expectancy of the Australian man is 79 years. They wouldn't outlast the pitchdrop experiment. They might not even really get to see the effects. Life, and life that is short, is a lot like that – it obscures us from seeing the reality of things. And, of course, often death itself is the reality.

This week I've been working on Luke 12, the Parable of the Rich Fool. Jesus speaks of the idiocy of not realising there is more to this life than 79 short years. And in the middle he does so in a really clever way. The Rich Fool is speaking…

Luke 12:19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”

It's an obvious allusion to this…

Eccl. 8:14 There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. 15 So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.

Qoheleth, the speaker of Ecclesiastes, is working through the conundrum of life. It doesn't seem to make sense – no one gets what they deserve. If that's reality then the only sane option is to live it up now. Enjoy life – eat and drink and be glad. And, of course, store it up to stop if from going.

But as Ecclesiastes progresses we realise that there's more to life. Or, more accurately, more to life than life.

11:9 You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.

The judgement of God puts everything into perspective. What seemed arbitrary and unfair will be measured and held to account. The 85 year experiment does have a demonstrable conclusion. You may die but you willsee the pitch drop, just not in the way that you thought. Which is, of course, Jesus' point,

Luke 12:20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

Assessing this life based on only this life is nuts. You simply can't live long enough to see the pitch drop because death will get you first. And then it's too late. Besides, the results of the experiment are already in – so why act like you don't know what will happen?


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