Back in early August, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Mainstone, the man who has taken care of the Pitch Drop Experiment at Australia's University of Queensland since 1961. The experiment has been running since 1927, when Professor Thomas Parnell set out to show his students that coal-tar pitch can behave as both a solid and a liquid. Despite being hard enough to break with a hammer, the pitch also drips ... sliding very, very slowly down the neck of a funnel into a beaker.
In Mainstone's years as custodian, the drops have dripped five times. He never got a chance to watch any of them, either in person, or on video. The first falling drop he ever saw came this earlier this summer, when a different pitch drop experiment in Ireland managed to catch the event on camera.
Mainstone's pitch is predicted to drop later this fall, but he won't be around to see it. Last week, I received an email from his daughter Julia, confirming that Mainstone had died of a stroke on August 23rd. He was 78. You didn't have to talk to Mainstone for very long to get a sense of the passion he had for the pitch drop project. I'm glad I got a chance to speak with him before he died and, in a couple of weeks, we'll be running a feature story here at BoingBoing based, in part, on those interviews.
In the meantime, the Pitch Drop Experiment has a new custodian, Andrew White, a physics professor and former student of Mainstone.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.