How long will this experiment take?

Ed Yong (whose “missing links” are always the best collection of science links anywhere), points to an NPR interview with Lenski, which also discusses a seed experiment that’s been going on for over a century.

Brought to mind a collection of really long experiments that I stumbled on a while back. (Note too the discussion of Henrietta Lacks.)

My personal favorite is the experiment showing pitch is actually a liquid: by letting it drop out of a funnel — once a decade or so:

Begun in 1927, just getting ready to perform the experiment took years. The Professor heated a sample of pitch in a sealed funnel and for three years Parnell let the pitch cool and settle. In 1930 he cut the bottom off of the funnel, freeing the pitch to begin its mind-bogglingly slow escape.

Professor Parnell lived long enough to record only two drips fall, at an average rate of approximately once every 8.5 years. Parnell died in 1948 but the pitch experiment has kept on going without him. As of 2009, the pitch has dripped only eight times.79 years after the experiment was begun, the ninth drop is beginning to form.

I find this fun because of an example that a well-known metaphysician, Peter van Inwagen, offers of a metaphysically impossible object. He’s fond of claiming it’s a priori obvious that there cannot be a liquid wine bottle.

And I’m fond of pointing out that if a liquid were viscous enough (like pitch), there’d be no problem making a wine bottle out of it.

If I ever find an artist who works with pitch or tar, I’ll commission a liquid wine bottle to present to van Inwagen at his retirement.

[Someday I’ll update this post with a photo of one of my favorite kinetic sculptures. It’s at the MIT robot museum in Boston, and it is a series of gears. The first gear is driven by a motor moving fairly quickly, and then it’s scaled down by the next gear, etc., etc. The final gear is set in a block of concrete, and will rotate once every 13.5 billion years.

(a) Talk about a long experiment.

(b) I find it a beautiful example of how our intellect can grasp reality. We know that each gear is moving — slower than the previous amount by a very specific amount — but that movement completely escapes our senses.]

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One response to “How long will this experiment take?

  1. Pingback: Exciting Times: A drop of pitch is about to fall | Physicalism

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