Home Science The Scientific Research projects that took forever

The Scientific Research projects that took forever

by Sangam Adhikari

1. The Pitch Drop Experiment

Professor Thomas Parnell, the first professor of physics, who in 1927 set up the experiment to demonstrate the viscosity of pitch – the thickest fluid known to man. At room temperature, pitch feels solid – even brittle – and can easily be shattered with a hammer. But, in fact, at room temperature the substance – which is 100 billion times more viscous than water – is actually fluid.

Professor Parnell heated some pitch and poured it into a glass funnel with a sealed stem, and left it to cool. After three years, the bottom of the funnel was cut and the pitch began to flow downwards. It took from seven to nine years for each drop to fall. The eighth drop took more than 12 years to fall, perhaps due to lower pressure from the diminishing mass of pitch remaining in the funnel. Or maybe the air conditioner installed in the 1980s made the pitch cooler and even more viscous.

Since the pitch drop experiment began in 1930 no one has ever seen the pitch actually drop. The ninth drop actually stuck to the eighth.

When the prof died in 1948 the second drop was completed, but he never saw a drop fall. His successor, Professor John Mainstone, was determined to be the first person that actually would see a drop fall. With the emergence of new technology, he installed a webcam to make sure the event was recorded, but due to an unfortunate power failure, the camera did not record the occurrence when, in November 2000, the eighth drop fell. Prof Mainstone died in 2013.

Needless to say that the next prof, Andrew White, was even more determined to see, or at least record, the next drop. A time-lapse camera was set up, with continuous video of the four most recent days, and two additional video cameras. Nothing was left to a chance.

On 17 April 2014, the 9th drop was about to fall: The drop touched the previous drops that were still in the beaker below the experiment, but it was still attached to the funnel. The previous drops were supporting the drop and it wasn’t gonna fall.

Prof White decided to put an empty beaker below the experiment to make room for the drop. He carefully lifted the bell jar that protected the experiment. But he didn’t know that there was a degraded seal between the glass bell jar and the wooden platform below the experiment. The wooden base wobbled and disaster struck: the 9th drop came loose.

We are now 2020, more than 93 years after the start of the experiment and nobody ever witnessed or recorded a drop.

2. Jan Baptista van Helmont Experiment

¿Entiendes la ciencia?: Los experimentos más bellos de la ...

Jan Baptista van Helmont (1580-1664), a chemist, physiologist, and philosopher, wanted to determine where plants get their mass. To this end, he undertook an ingenious and five-year-long experiment. Since the time of ancient Greek natural philosophy, it was assumed that all matter consisted of four elements: earth, water, fire, and air.
Taking a willow shoot, van Helmont wanted to prove that only air and water were a simple matter. So he placed a 5-pound (about 2.2-kg) clean willow shoot in an earthen pot containing 200 pounds (ca. 91 kg) of dried soil, and over five years he added nothing to the pan but rainwater or distilled water Five years after planting the willow, he pulled it out of the soil of the pot and weighed both a second time. From the earth, only 2 ounces had been lost in this time, the tree, however, was 164 pounds (ca. 74 kg) and 3 ounces heavy. From this, Van Helmont drew the reasonable conclusion: “164 pounds of wood, bark, and roots originated from water alone”.
Only later researched by other scholars establish that plants also need air (especially the carbon dioxide contained in it), light and – in much smaller quantities – substances from the soil to grow.

3. Henry Head’s Experiment

A short history :: Cambridge Neuroscience

Another long experiment was conducted by Henry Head (1861 – 1940) an English neurologist who was interested in the somatosensory system and who volunteered to have 2 nerves in his left arm cut and used for a study concerning the regeneration of sensitivity after an ‘injury’, In 1903 an operation was performed to divide the radial and the external nerves in Head’s left forearm. The regeneration of these nerves was plotted weekly over the next four years, but he followed it up personally for several years after that. A major discovery was the subdivision of the somatosensory system into two constituents of cutaneous sensibility: the protopathic system, through which pain and degrees of heat and cold beyond normal thresholds can be recognized but not accurately localized, and an epicritic system which is concerned with the perception of light touches, degrees of temperature natural to the skin, accurate localization of stimulus and discrimination of two simultaneous contacts.

Head’s final study was one of degeneration where he also was his own subject, in 1919 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and he studied his own degeneration. This was summed up in his 1926 book Aphasia and Kindred Disorders of Speech (1926). Henry Head is remembered as a pioneer by scientists interested in the CNS and PNS.

4. Babylonian astronomy

Early Astronomy Civilizations – Hamilelikvedogum.info

Babylonian astronomy carried out by their astronomers/astrologers not just over years, but centuries and millennia, the accumulated knowledge is passed on to succeeding generations.

There is some evidence that astrology of some form appeared in the Sumerian period in the 3rd millennium BC, but are not considered sufficient evidence to demonstrate an integrated theory of astrology. The history of scholarly celestial description is therefore generally reported beginning with late Old Babylonian texts (c. 1800 BC), continuing through the Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian periods (c. 1200 BC). The oldest surviving planetary astronomical text is the Babylonian Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa, a 7th-century BC copy of a list of observations of the motions of the planet Venus that probably dates as early as the second millennium BC.

The Babylonians were the first to identify fixed stars and five planets: Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury, and Mars which they saw as gods in the sky. As astrology was central to their belief system, astronomical calculations were developed along with a very sophisticated number system to the base 60. Hence they had a year of 360 days, described a circle as having 360 degrees, and the 12 signs of the Zodiac derives from their descriptions of constellations. And so we still honor them daily as we look at a clock where the rotation of the earth is divided into two 12 hour periods, each hour having 60 minutes, each minute 60 seconds. Before you go to sleep and take a last look at the time, you’re using this number system of telling it. About the length of that research project, it is still ongoing!

5. Morrow Plots Experiment

Look no further than the Morrow Plots at the University of Illinois. These plots of land were home to an experiment in rotating crops on agricultural land. The first such experiments took place in 1876 on ten acres of land. Today a subset of this land continues to plant crops in rotation.

These plots were in the remote part of campus when they began. Today they are in the central location of the southern part of campus, just next to the undergraduate library. On what began as otherwise similar land some crops gain full maturity and others do not, and the difference is entirely due to depletion of the nutrients in the soil. More than 140 years later we can still see the results of foolish practices of the past.

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