A few posts back I wrote on Fritz Leiber’s Cthulhuesqe weird tale, The Black Gondolier, a story of dark conspiracy and paranoia, where as one of the characters declares, ‘we didn’t find oil, oil found us.’ The characters realize that oil, pooling in vast subterranean primordial lakes for millions of years, has achieved quasi-sentience, and now uses humanity for its own unknowable ends. The more we use oil, the greater its power grows. I can only guess that once it has gained enough power it will depart, a la the Colour out of Space, stripping the earth of all vestiges of life as it goes.
In this spirit, I introduce the Pitch Drop. And, please, note that pitch is a petroleum product.
University of Queensland Professor of Physics Thomas Parnell created the Pitch Drop in 1927. He heated pitch and poured it into a glass funnel. Ever since the pitch has slowly – and I mean slowly, glaciers have nothing on this – dripped out of the funnel into the waiting beaker. Eighty six years later, the ninth drip is forming.You can see the fascination in the live webcast. Will the drop fall? You watch, and watch, and realise you’ve been sitting there unblinking, unmoving, and your eyes are sore.
No-one was present for the critical instants when the pitch drops fell during Thomas Parnell’s time. Then for some decades the Pitch Drop was shunted aside into a cupboard, until the sixth drop was forming.
Its most recent custodian, Professor John Mainstone, brought the Pitch Drop out of the cupboard and into the foyer of the Physics building. He started to keep an eye on it, determined to see a drop of pitch fall.The sixth drop fell on a weekend in April 1979, unseen.
At this point, Mainstone became quietly obsessed. In July 1988, the Pitch Drop was on display at Brisbane’s World Expo. Mainstone noticed the seventh drop about to fall and kept an unblinking eye on it. At last, he left to fetch a drink. On his return five minutes later with his refreshing beverage he saw the seventh pitch drop lying in the beaker, its fall again unseen. At this point he should have realised he had no hope but he is an experimental physicist. He persisted.
By November 2000, Mainstone was sure the eighth drop was about to fall. He was travelling overseas, secure in the knowledge that he and his colleagues had set up a 24-hour digital camera focused on the Pitch Drop. This time, the drop’s fall would be recorded no matter what. We can imagine his joy when his colleagues emailed that the eighth drop had fallen. We can also imagine his chagrin when he received a second email that began with the words, ‘oh no.’ There was a malfunction in the camera’s digital memory at the critical instant. The eighth drop again went unrecorded.
Now in April 2013, the ninth drop is about to fall, although “about” is a relative term in the viscous world of pitch. This time Mainstone and his colleagues have three cameras, including a live webcam, fixed on it. This time, someone will see it. Or will they?
Don’t they realize? Of course they don’t. They’re physicists. They believe the pitch to be an inert lump of matter that confirms to the reassuring laws of the known universe. But I can see what is going on. It is the Black Gondolier all over again. The Pitch Drop wants us to watch it, ha ha, oh yes it does, for its own unknowable ends, but it does not want us to see the drop. I don’t know how it will manage it. It may need to black out the entire state of Queensland. But I am sure the ninth drop will again fall unseen.
In the meantime, have another look at it. Go on. Watch as the seconds tick by. Sit slack jawed, not eating, not drinking, barely breathing, … just …. watching … Time does not mean anything anyway, not when you’re a drop of pitch waiting to fall, waiting through decades as you have through all the millions of years before. And dwell on this.
“We didn’t find oil. Oil found us.”
We are not watching the Pitch Drop.
It is watching us.
Images and information are from the Australian newspaper’s excellent article by Trent Dalton, Pitch Fever, on this strangely endearing by-way of scientific investigation.