Viscosity in the news, twice (pitch and molasses)!

‘Midst the ebb and flow and eddies of the news, now and then people pay attention to viscosity. Today serves up two items, each of which is derived from Ig Nobel Prize-winning work.

TrinityPitch1.”Trinity College experiment succeeds after 69 years” says the headline in RTE news (which also has a video report accompanying the text) (Thanks to investigator Hugh McElveen for bringing this to our attention.):

After decades of waiting, physicists at Trinity College have for the first time captured a rare scientific event on camera. 70 years after the experiment was set up, the scientists have videoed pitch dripping from a funnel.

The experiment was begun by a colleague of Nobel Prize winner Ernest Walton in the physics department of Trinity in 1944. Its aim was to prove that the black carbonic substance pitch is a viscous or flowing material. The experiment involved placing several lumps of pitch into a funnel and placing the funnel in a jar….

A similar experiment, begun years earlier and still running, was honored with an Ig Nobel Prize in 2005, for physics. The citation says:

John Mainstone and the late Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland, Australia, 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. REFERENCE: “The Pitch Drop Experiment,” R. Edgeworth, B.J. Dalton and T. Parnell, European Journal of Physics, 1984, pp. 198-200.]

That same year, 2005, the Ig Nobel Prize for chemistry was awarded to:

Edward Cussler of the University of Minnesota and Brian Gettelfinger of the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin, for conducting a careful experiment to settle the longstanding scientific question: can people swim faster in syrup or in water? [REFERENCE: “Will Humans Swim Faster or Slower in Syrup?American Institute of Chemical Engineers Journal, Brian Gettelfinger and E. L. Cussler, vol. 50, no. 11, October 2004, pp. 2646-7.]

John Mainstone, Ed Cussler, and Brian Gettelfinger all attended that year’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, at which Nobel laureates handed them their Ig Nobel Prizes.

2. The Cussler/Gettelfinger swimming-in-syrup experiment figures in Ferris Jabr’s new essay in Scientific American, about viscosity, the Boston molasses flood, and bacteria and sperm swimming in gooey substances. Jabr’s essay itself also leads you, the reader, to other good essays:

The Science of the Great Molasses Flood

In 1919 a wave of syrup swept through the streets of Boston. Fluid dynamics explains why it was even more devastating than a typical tsunami

…I became fascinated by the idea of microbes battling viscous forces many times greater than those unleashed on Boston in 1919—forces to which most of us are oblivious. So I started researching. I called up my fellow science writer Aatish Bhatia, who had written a fascinating essay called “What it feels like for a sperm,” that I highly recommend. I looked up the transcript of Purcell’s original talk and old papers by pioneers in research on microbial movement, such as Howard Berg. And I searched the research literature for the most recent studies on how microorganisms swim.

BONUS: A possibly live video feed from the Trinity College Dublin pitch drop experiment.

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