The oldest scientific experiments still running...
June 6, 2011 6:56 PM   Subscribe

The three longest-running scientific experiments are all located in the foyers of physics buildings. The oldest is the Oxford Electric Bell, which has been ringing continuously (over ten billion times!) since at least 1840, powered by batteries of unknown composition. In Dunedin, New Zealand, the Beverley clock has operated since 1864, without the need for winding, as it is powered by atmospheric changes. The relative youngster in the group is the Pitch Drop Experiment, which has been measuring the viscosity of pitch since 1927 by recording the time between drops of pitch from a funnel. The experiments has the world's most boring webcam, though the eighth, and most recent, drop fell in 2000, so the next is due any day now! Atlas Obscura has some additional candidates for long experiments, including the Rothemstead Plots, which have been used in agricultural experiments for 300 years.
posted by blahblahblah (33 comments total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
Awesome post.
To date, no one has ever witnessed a drop fall. There is no visual documentation of the dramatic event. The closet anyone ever came was in April 1979 when John Mainstone, the professor who now maintains the experiment, came to work on a Sunday afternoon. He noted that a drop was just about to touch down, but did not have time to stay. On returning the following morning, Mainstone saw to his chagrin that the drop had fallen. Even technology has been foiled in the attempt to capture evidence of the pitch’s clandestine maneuvers: A video camera placed to monitor the experiment failed at the very moment the eighth drop fell.
posted by grouse at 7:00 PM on June 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

Shoutout to all my pitches: drop it like it's hot.
posted by GuyZero at 7:03 PM on June 6, 2011 [9 favorites]

Wow. So cool. Thanks for this. Loved Atlas Obscura's list!
posted by pointystick at 7:05 PM on June 6, 2011

This is wicked cool! Thank you so much for sharing!
posted by headspace at 7:09 PM on June 6, 2011

Wow. This is neat!
posted by meese at 7:11 PM on June 6, 2011

very cool. Though, pedantically, those Rothemstead plots have only been going 150 years.
posted by wilful at 7:21 PM on June 6, 2011

Nice post, thank you!
posted by carter at 7:28 PM on June 6, 2011

And this is why there is rarely any need to venture beyond the friendly confines of the MetaFilter...
posted by jim in austin at 7:39 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is the Oxford electric bell a proper scientific experiment if the composition of the batteries making it up are unknown? That seems like awfully poor documentation to me.
posted by dibblda at 7:40 PM on June 6, 2011

It sounds like the bell contributed the evidence it was meant to contribute already, and it's just running because it can.
posted by breath at 7:45 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I didn't know that the next pitch drop was coming up. I kind of wish I could get on a notification list for the next drop (like if Mainstone can tell that it's about to drop again within 24hrs) so I could take the day off, open up the webcam and watch it happen. Pitch Drop Day could be a worldwide nerd event. I could call up a few nerd friends to watch it on the big screen and ... actually that would probably just devolve into xkcd jokes until we got distracted by Christopher Lloyd robbing the house or something and missed it anyway.
posted by MrFTBN at 7:54 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

The 10,000 Year Clock
posted by homunculus at 8:04 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

there's a Primum Mobile at Teylers Museum's collection of physical instruments. Row 5, Column 2.
posted by warbaby at 8:04 PM on June 6, 2011

Er, Perpetuum mobile, I've been drinking.
posted by warbaby at 8:07 PM on June 6, 2011

The Abe Vigoda experiment has been running since 1921.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:08 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Not too far from my keyboard: "...the oldest continually used experimental agricultural fields in the United States and also the first soil experimental plots by a United States college. They are also the second oldest in the world..." The Morrow Plots.
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 8:15 PM on June 6, 2011

I can imagine the scene that lead to the double thick jar being placed over the bells...guy in the office next door finally goes berserk "where is that effing ringing?!?"
posted by double bubble at 8:23 PM on June 6, 2011

I was really bummed to hear that the photographic equipment failed for the 8th pitch drop.

Duration (yrs)

and the next one is expected in 2013, 13 years since the last drop. I think it`s neat that surface tension and whatever it is that surface-surface (static friction between a fluid and a solid?) interaction is called is catching up with viscosity.

MrFTBN - Hells yeah!
posted by porpoise at 8:33 PM on June 6, 2011

One of the founders of modern statistics, R A Fisher, worked at Rothamsted. According to a statistics instructor I once had, Fisher pioneered statistical design of experiments precisely because Rothamsted had been in experimental use for so long - he needed a way to separate the effects of this year's agricultural experiments from the effects of all the previous experimental treatments still lingering in the soil.

Luckily the experiments were recorded meticulously and he could actually sort out what had been done when and where, and lay out his new experiments so they would not be confounded by old treatments. Supposedly the term "blocking" comes from his approach of dividing the fields into blocks for treatment.

Nice post - I've bookmarked the Atlas Obscura for inspiration, and we should definitely declare Pitch Drop Day an international nerd holiday. Who's going to organize the webcam and meetup?
posted by Quietgal at 8:40 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

More info on the pitch drop experiment here & here.

What I didn't see mentioned in the post's links is that last time it dropped, it didn't 'drop' - because of the previous drops still sitting in the beaker, there was insufficient distance between the funnel & beaker for the neck to break. The 8th drop stayed connected, and the 9th drop started forming above it.

I don't know if they did anything about that; the last time I was out there I forgot to visit the Parnell building…
posted by Pinback at 11:07 PM on June 6, 2011

Atlas Obscura's "random place" feature has brought out the Cliff Clavin in me. What a wonderful site.
posted by Foaf at 11:54 PM on June 6, 2011

cool, I work in the same building as the pitch drop, I might start watching it and become the first person to see a drop
posted by moorooka at 2:34 AM on June 7, 2011

So, I guess the ongoing experiment in my home of my patience being tested doesn't even rate, does it? Oh well...
posted by Thorzdad at 4:24 AM on June 7, 2011

Is the Oxford electric bell a proper scientific experiment if the composition of the batteries making it up are unknown? That seems like awfully poor documentation to me.
It's more a demonstration. I don't think anyone's particularly bothered by what the dry pile is constructed from as it's not putting out anything remarkable in order to power the bell.
posted by edd at 4:53 AM on June 7, 2011

I don't think anyone's particularly bothered by what the dry pile is constructed from...
What is most interesting, and mysterious, about the apparatus is the internal composition of the 'dry pile' batteries.
Also, I'm pretty sure a regular, off-the-shelf battery wouldn't last 170 years, even if you didn't use it at all, let alone ran a bell with it (albeit at a mere 2 Hz).
posted by DU at 5:01 AM on June 7, 2011

DU: Sure, but there's a fair degree of confidence that it's the paper/foil construction suggested or something broadly like it, and if you figured out what it actually was it wouldn't overturn established ideas or lead to anything particularly technologically useful. It's an interesting and fun little curiousity though.
posted by edd at 5:49 AM on June 7, 2011

More on electric chimes

The Oxford electric bell is unusual for how long it has been going, but it's a fairly common display experiment. It is possible that the pile is actually electrets rather than voltaic.

At any rate, the bell operates by electrostatic attraction, not by electromagnetism. So it's the voltage, not the current that's making it work.
posted by warbaby at 7:08 AM on June 7, 2011

The Gravity Probe B spacecraft took fifty years between its initial funding by NASA and its last deliverable, a publication in PRL in 2011..

Not an experiment, but a satellite, Marisat F2, running for 32 years in a row without any human intervention.
posted by IgorCarron at 1:16 PM on June 7, 2011

Yeah, it seems to me that the Oxford Bell and the Beverly Clock are only scientific demonstrations, not experiments (although perhaps I'm missing something about what information is gained from these). Only the pitch drop is a proper experiment.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:25 PM on June 7, 2011

Only the pitch drop is a proper experiment.

I seem to remember that when I was at UQ (and walked past the experiment in the foyer of the Parnell Building every time I had a physics lecture) that it was claimed to be the longest running experiment, and I was surprised by this post, with the mention of those two others. Perhaps that was the rationale?
posted by markr at 3:17 PM on June 7, 2011

Is it an experiment? But is it scientific? I don't know, but 639 years is a long time to continuously (with luck) perform a piece by John Cage. (Halberstadt website)
posted by Twang at 4:07 PM on June 7, 2011

Longplayer goes longer, and the Clock of the Long Now goes longer still.
posted by edd at 5:20 PM on June 7, 2011

Even if we were to extend the discussion beyond scientific experiments to other works, I think it's only fair, at least in the spirit of the OP, to judge them on how long they've been running so far, not how long they're planned to run. (Otherwise I could win trivially by writing a computer program that repeats a loop of music for the next N billion years. OK, maybe not quite that trivial since I'd need a system that could measure time for that long, but you get the idea.)

In which case As Slow As Possible (10 years), Longplayer (11 years), and the Clock of the Long Now (11 years) are nowhere near the works described earlier.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:46 PM on June 8, 2011

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