7 October 2005

Four years after being nominated by The Times of England as a worthy candidate for an Ig Nobel award, UQ’s famous “pitch drop” physics experiment has made the big time.

University of Queensland visiting scholar Professor John Mainstone is one of 10 international recipients of the 2005 Ig Nobel Prize, honoring achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.

The prizes are awarded in various disciplines to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative, and spur people`s interest in science, medicine and technology.

The "15th First Annual" Ig Nobel Prize ceremony was held today at Harvard University.

Professor Mainstone and the late Professor Thomas Parnell received the award “for patiently conducting an experiment that began in the year 1927 — in which a glob of congealed black tar has been slowly, slowly dripping through a funnel, at a rate of approximately one drop every nine years.”

Professor Parnell, who was UQ’s first professor of physics (1919-1948), established the experiment. He wanted to show his students that materials like pitch, a concentrated derivative of tar which is quite solid at room temperature, can nevertheless exhibit fluid properties.

Professor Parnell heated a sample of pitch and poured it into a glass funnel with the stem sealed. Three years later, he broke the seal. The rate of drip has been exceedingly slow because the pitch`s (seasonally-averaged) coefficient of viscosity turned out to be at least 100 billion times that of water.

Since 1930, eight drops of pitch have formed and fallen. "People who look at the pitch drop think that it would feel like chewing gum, but it`s not soft and sticky at all," Professor Mainstone said. "In fact, it`s so hard that if you hit it with a hammer, it would shatter like glass."

In eight decades, no-one has actually seen a drop fall — "hardly surprising, because the fall is only about 5cm and that takes only a very small fraction of a second".

The experiment has attracted wide international attention, with film crews ranging from the Discovery Channel in Canada and NHK in Japan previously making special visits to Australia to film it.

People around the world watch the experiment live on a Webcam installed on the pitch drop site: http://www.physics.uq.edu.au/pitchdrop/mainstone.html although to this day, no one has seen a droplet fall live. The experiment can be viewed live in the foyer of the Parnell Building in the Great Court, St Lucia campus.

The last drop fell on November 28, 2000, and the next drop could fall anytime between 2009 and 2012, give or take a few years either side.

“As Parnell died in 1948, I have seen more of the drops as they formed than ever he did, of course,” he said.

Professor Mainstone received his Ig Nobel Prize from a genuine Nobel Laureate —Sheldon Glashow (Physics 1979) before a paper-airplane-throwing audience of 1200 people and he is staying in the U.S. with a Nobel laureate. His award has received extensive media treatment in the U.S., including an interview with prestigious science publication, Nature.

The event was produced by the science humor magazine "Annals of Improbable Research" (AIR), and co-sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association and the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students.

It was televised live on the Internet, and can be seen in recorded form at http://www.improbable.com.

To learn more about studying physics at UQ visit www.physics.uq.edu.au or www.uq.edu.au/study

Media: Professor Mainstone can be reached at mainstone@physics.uq.edu.au. Associate Professor Norman Heckenberg of UQ’s Physics Museum, telephone 0405 685813 or UQ research fellow Dr Steven Cooper telephone 0438 775 899 would also be happy to discuss the experiment. Photolibrarian Ms Diana Lilley, telephone 07 3365 2753 email: d.lilley@uq.edu.au can assist with images.