My friend had told me, jokingly, not to hold my breath and I didn’t. Looking at the Pitch Drop experiment in Trinity College recently all I could do was laugh, for if I was to see the drop drip I would have to wait about ten years. Holding my breath was out of the question, but the experiment, quirky as it is, did certainly hold my attention.
The Pitch Drop experiment was setup in October 1944 by a colleague of Nobel laureate Sir Ernest Walton, and remained unmonitored for decades on a shelf in a lecture hall where it gathered dust. The experiment was to measure the viscosity (thickness) of pitch, and when in 2013 scientists noticed that a drop had formed the glass jar in which the experiment was housed was moved and a webcam setup to record the ‘drop’. And it came to pass that on 11th July 2013 at 5pm the first ever ‘drop’ was recorded. Based on analysis of the experiment the scientists in Trinity College estimated the viscosity of the pitch to be about two million times that of honey, and about twenty billion times the viscosity of water.
A similar experiment was setup in 1927 by Professor Thomas Parnell in the University of Queensland (Brisbane) and this is acknowledged by the Guinness Book of Records as the longest, continuously running laboratory experiment. And in 2006 Parnell and current Professor, John Mainstone, were awarded the Ig Noble Prize in Physics for the experiment!
After waiting for a black drop that never came my friend and I went to a well-known, local hostelry where the black drops, thankfully, dropped much more quickly. Slainte.
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For a man interested in colour and who published scientific papers on the subject, the adjective colourful applies to Erwin Schrödinger who lived on Kincora Road, Clontarf for seventeen years and certainly left his mark. Among his many achievements here was a series of lectures given in Trinity College in February 1943 on ‘What is life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell.’ This was inspirational to many scientists, most notably James Watson and Francis Crick whose work led to the discovery of DNA in 1953. A sculpture commemorating the achievement was unveiled on its 60th anniversary in the Botanic Gardens which James Watson attended.
Schrödinger was an only child born in Vienna in 1887 to middle-class, educated parents and was tutored at home until the age of eleven. Later he attended school, then university where he excelled and gained a PhD in Physics. World War I interrupted his progress and he spent it as an officer in the Austrian army.
DNA sculpture in Botanic Gardens
After the war he had a number of different positions, married Annemarie (Anny) Bertel in 1920, before he was offered the chair in Theoretical Physics at the University of Zürich in 1921. He stayed there for six years, probably the most productive time in his career, before being offered the post of Max Planck’s replacement at the prestigious University of Berlin. And it was during his time in Zürich that he became interested in wave mechanics after reading a paper by Albert Einstein. Thinking about how to explain the movement of an electron as a wave his 1926 paper provided a theoretical basis for the atomic model. His groundbreaking work is hailed as a masterpiece, and one of the greatest accomplishments ever in in science. It subsequently led to new insights into quantum mechanics and other areas of chemistry. In 1933 both he and Paul Dirac (Cambridge University) were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ is his famous thought experiment that illustrates the problem of the interpretation of quantum mechanics when applied to everyday objects.
DIAS – Burlington Road
By that time he was aware that many of his Jewish colleagues were being dismissed from their posts and he decided to leave Hitler’s Germany. He went to Oxford University for three years before returning to Austria in 1938. The following year he accepted Eamon de Valera’s offer of coming to Ireland and helping establish the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS). De Valera, himself a mathematician, got ‘his man’ and made sure that Schrodinger’s visa arrangements were processed speedily. For Schrodinger’s needs were indeed complicated and had previously stymied him at both Princeton and Oxford, as he lived with his wife and his lover, Hilde March, with whom he had a daughter. Of his relationship with the fairer sex he said: ‘Poor things, they have provided for my life’s happiness and their own distress. Such is life.’ Colourful indeed.
Plaque in Kincora Road, Clontarf
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