SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Sometimes progress comes in leaps and bounds, and sometimes it comes in drips. This week, the 9to5mac blog leaked word that Apple will declare its first generation iPhone obsolete, just six years after the company introduced it. Apple will no longer provide parts or service for it. California law requires the company to label it vintage in that state, which sounds somehow kinder than obsolete. But in just six years, the first iPhone has gone from cutting edge to antique.
That's the pace of progress these days, and you might wonder if at some point, and in some ways, such fast-acting obsolescence discourages us from taking a long view. Contrast that with the quiet expectation focused on a bell jar in an Australian lab. In 1927, Professor Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland set out to certify if pitch, a substance distilled from coal that was then used in caulking and windproofing, was liquid, not a solid. Pitch sure looks solid - you can break it with a hammer at room temperature - but Professor Parnell thought the substance had other characteristics that made it sort of gooey - viscous is the scientific term. So, he put a lump in a funnel, put the funnel under a jar, and waited. The pitch dripped 11 years later. And then again in 1947, then more drips in 1954, 1962, 1970, 1979, 1988, and, lastly for the moment, 2000.
Sir Thomas Parnell died in 1948. Beginning in the 1960s, a young scientist named John Mainstone looked after the lump of pitch. It became something of a real oddity and was hidden away in a cupboard, he told the Daily Mail newspaper. I had to convince the department to put it on display. There were people who thought it should just be thrown out. It's hard to tell that the pitch has been dripping for 86 years. It looks like a long, dark tendril dangling from a lump of coal. Professor Mainstone, who's now 77, has missed every drip since he took over. He missed the drip in 1988 because he was outside on a break. He was away during the drip that dropped in 2000, but confident it would be captured on cameras that are constantly trained on the lump. But they weren't working. Professor Mainstone says he expects another drip this year, but cautions you've got to be a bit philosophical about it.
The Pitch Drip Experiment has been deemed the oldest continuing experiment in the world, and you might wonder if the University of Queensland keeps it going only for that record. Whether it drips or not, the experiment may help us remember a point that's important to science, philosophy, and life: things aren't always what they appear to be.
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