How a visco-elastic-polymer can teach you to seize the day

pitch drop

The longest running science experiment of all time is on going in Australia - you can see it live here.

It might not seem like much but believe it or not there are hundreds of people around the world watching this live stream and waiting. Waiting for the chance to see something that no human being one earth has ever seen before.

In 1927 physics professor, Thomas Parnel, teaching in Queensland Australia wanted to show his students that physics can be deceiving. To demonstrate he used a substance called pitch.

Pitch looks and acts like rock. It’s heavy, solid looking and you can break it with a hammer. But pitch isn’t a rock -  it’s a ‘visco-elastic-polymer’ - which means that over many years it moves like a liquid.

Heated up, pitch melts. In 1929 Thomas Parnel heats his pitch up and pours it into a glass funnel and lets it cool, he snips the bottom of the funnel and waits for the pitch to form a drip and eventually, to drop.

This happens very slowly. 1930 goes by. 1931 goes by, ‘32, ’33 and ‘34 until finally in 1935, eight years after the experiment began the pitch drops. But no one sees it.

Cut to 1961. John Mainstone, another Physics professor from Australia makes it his life’s work to see the pitch drop. Cut to 2013. He’s been waiting 52 years – during which time the pitch has fallen 7 times, unwitnessed.

In 1962 Mainstone misses a drop. 8 years later he misses another. 9 years later it’s looking like it will drop on a Friday afternoon. He goes home for the weekend but decides to check on it Saturday evening – no drop. He comes back Monday morning and it’s fallen.

Even worse, in 1988 he goes to get a cup of coffee, comes back 15 minutes later and it’s dropped.

In 2000 he sets a camera up to record the event but the camera fails and he misses it again.

9 drops have occurred since 1927 and still no one has witnessed the event. Now, in 2013 we’re due a 9th. There are 3 webcams filming 24/7 with people all across the world tuning in to see the event. And it could literally happen any. Minute. Now.

So why bother with this experiment? Scientifically it’s interesting to see how the pitch drops. Mainstone is interested to see from a mechanical point of view how it becomes imperative that the pitch should drop. What pushes it over the edge?

But as well as the scientific value of this experiment, there is a much profound philosophical element. This singular event can teach us to be present in our lives. To seize the day.

In today’s world if you want something – you can get it. If you want to see a film, you can go to the cinema, buy the DVD or (shock-horror!) download it. If we want to see how a band sound live, you don’t need to wait for them to come to our town – you can just go on youtube. If you want to hear an album – you can get it straight to your phone, wherever you are, almost immediately. We have forgotten how to wait.

The Pitch experiment is different. People have been waiting decades for this event. And when the pitch does drop, it will drop in a 10th of a second.

Less than a minute later, the pitch drop will be on youtube for all to see. But the magic won’t be there. Decades of time stretch out before the drop will be witnessed and decades will stretch out after where anyone can see it. But it won’t be the same as having been in the moment.

This is one of those things that you cannot buy. It simply doesn’t conform to modern societies tendency to want it all and to want it now. And that’s beautiful.

So much of our lives is spent recording what we do. We go to shows and hold our phones above our heads to snap a low-grade image or record a low quality film with terrible sound. We tweet about where we are, what we’re doing and who with. We flick through facebook while we’re at the pub or the park with friends to see what everyone else is doing. We get in lifts and pull out our phones like anti-awkwardness devices.

When we do these things, whether intentionally or not we are divorcing ourselves from the present. We do them either because it doesn’t suit us to be there (as in the lift) or because we want to hold onto the moment forever (as at the show). Both are impossible desires.

The past is nothing but shared memories, culture and reconstruction. The future is unknowable and unknown. We are and always will be in the present. The pitch reminds us of this and it reminds us to live.