On Aug. 23, a physicist by the name of John Mainstone died. He was 78 years old. During his lifetime, he held an appointment as a lecturer in physics at Australia’s University of Queensland for more than 50 years, he helped raise three daughters with his wife and he oversaw the world’s longest running laboratory experiment, the famous “Pitch Drop Experiment” — an experiment whose critical moments he never had a chance to witness.
The experiment began in 1927, years before Mainstone was born, and sought to prove that some substances that appeared to be solids — in this case a petroleum derivative referred to as “pitch” — may, in fact, be highly viscous fluids. To prove this, some of this pitch was placed in a funnel and allowed to settle, and eventually, it dropped through the bottom — much like water through a faucet, albeit about a billion times slower. The first drop of pitch fell more than 10 years after the beginning of the experiment. The subsequent seven drops took 8.3, 7.2, 8.1, 8.3, 8.7, 9.3 and 12.3 years to fall, respectively. It has been more than 13 years since the last drop and physicists around the world wait with bated breath over a live-streaming webcam.
Why? Well, in the 86 years since the beginning of the experiment, no one has seen a drip drop. Not even Mainstone, its caretaker of 52 years .
To have so fully devoted one’s life to one thing and never see it come to full fruition is nothing short of existentially devastating to many of us. As physicist Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop, a colleague of Mainstone’s, noted, “John’s death is particularly sad as … he did not see a single drop fall.”
But perhaps the point of the experiment — to watch pitch drop — isn’t the point of the experiment at all. Perhaps it’s not just an experiment in watching stuff move slowly — though this does have important ramifications in fluid dynamics, continuum mechanics and tribology. Instead, maybe this experiment is a profound expression of the difference in scales between human beings and their surroundings.
Simply put, we are middle-sized primates on a middle-sized world capable of observing middle-sized things. So much is beyond our scope — the size of an atom, the weight of a sun, the smell of dark matter, the taste of a black hole, the sound of the continents moving — that it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say we perceive next to nothing at all.
Just about every sound our species’ ears have heard has fallen between 20 and 20,000 Hz, a woefully small margin incapable of hearing the tides or appreciating a dog-whistle quartet. Every sight our species’ eyes has seen has come from electromagnetic waves approximately 390 to 700 nanometers in length, a sliver less than 0.00000000000000000001 percent the spectrum of waves we can currently measure. As nature made us, we are blind, deaf and dumb in a very real sense.
That we have found out the extent of our ignorance is perhaps the crowning achievement of science. Through careful observation, objective reporting and sharing what we learn, we’ve been able to develop a knowledge base and methodology powerful enough to predict the movement of stars trillions and trillions of miles away simply from the light they left billions of years ago. It’s powerful enough to make instantaneous communication across the planet nearly trivial and strip atoms of their electrons. We have come a long way since the savannah.
Mainstone’s missed drops are only but a few in the bucket of stuff we miss in our universe. If John Mainstone’s death is sad for missing these, we might weep every day for all that is seen and unseen. We might also well up in gratitude that such people exist, willing to face down nature and watch it work. Though we were not equipped to do so, we have equipped ourselves. With patience, perseverance and cunning we have equipped ourselves to study the invisible.
We’ve split the atom, seen stars explode and seen rocks flow, and it was all because of people like John Mainstone.
Barry Belmont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.