Articles by: Kenneth Hanson

23 Million Times Slower than Molasses

I have the pleasure of teaching general chemistry II for the first time ever this semester. It is fun to go back and revisit concepts that I have not spent time with since taking general chemistry ~13 years ago. Our first few classes will focus on intermolecular forces (dipole-dipole, London Dispersion, etc.) and some of their macroscopic manifestations. Some examples covered in the book include surface tension, capillary action and viscosity. Searching these topics online led me to my new favorite experiment: the Pitch Drop Experiment.
Pitch Drop

In 1927, Professor Thomas Parnell started the Pitch Drop experiment in which he sought to measure the viscosity of pitch. Pitch is a general term used to describe a highly viscous solid polymer, but this material is often a complex mixture of phenols, aromatic and long chain hydrocarbons. Unfortunately, I could not find the exact composition of the pitch used in this specific experiment, but needless to say this sample does meet the description of a highly viscous material.

The experiment was initiated when Prof. Parnell heated up a sample of pitch and poured it into a conical piece of glass. The pitch was then left to sit for three years, presumably the length of time it needed to cool and completely settle into the cone shape. Immediately after the bottom of the funnel was cut open the pitch came rushing out. Just kidding. The pitch ever so slowly began dripping out of the funnel. How slowly? At a rate of approximately one drop every 10 years. In fact, the most recent drop—the 9th drop ever– fell on April 17th 2014.

The first report on this experiment was published in the European Journal of Physics in 1984. In that manuscript they calculated the pitch (2.3 x 108 Pa s) to be 230 billion times more viscous than water (1.0 x 10-3 Pa s). That means it’s more than 23 million times slower than molasses (5-10 Pa s). The longevity and creativity of this experiment won Thomas Parnell and John Mainstone (the caretaker of the experiment for more than 50 years) an Ig Nobel Prize in 2005. The experiment has also been officially included in the Guinness World Records as the world’s longest continuously running laboratory experiment.

Despite this experiment’s epicness, or maybe because of it, no one has ever been in the room to watch one of the pitch drops fall. The closest anyone has come is a time-lapse video below.


The video is unfortunately anticlimactic. It shows the 9th drop making contact with the 8th drop in the beaker. It isn’t the spectacle of a full ‘drop’ event, but don’t worry. The next occurrence is right around the corner: about 14 years away. In anticipation of this event the University of Queensland has set up three webcams and a continuously streaming live feed on a website called The Tenth Watch. Regardless of where you find yourself, you can keep a constant eye on the experiment as it progresses. And even if you miss the 10th drop, don’t worry, it’s estimated that there is enough pitch in the funnel to produce several more drops over the next 100 years.

By January 24, 2015 3 comments fun, general chemistry

First Friday: Ask a Scientist

Soon after moving to Tallahassee my wife (Debbie) and I were encouraged to check out First Friday, an eclectic, once-a-month gathering of local musicians, artists, food trucks, and performers. Located in a lumber yard-turned-art park known as Railroad Square, First Friday is a wonderful opportunity to see locals celebrating their hobbies and personal interests. Following this spirit, Debbie and I, along with my colleague Greg Dudley, decided to contribute as well – and our Ask a Scientist (AaS) booth was born. We gather 4-5 scientists–predominantly FSU faculty—from across disciplines like chemistry, physics, engineering, psychology, medicine and biology and stand by a tent with a sign proclaiming Ask a Scientist. What follows is ~3 hours each month spent drinking beer and talking science with people passing by.

Below is a time-lapse of our August AaS event. The evening featured the following scientists: David Meckes (virology and biomedical sciences), Brian Miller (biochemistry), Tom Albrecht-Schmitt (nuclear chemistry), and myself (Ken Hanson, energy/material chemistry). We try to rotate a new batch of scientists every month.

There are four types of common interactions/questions:

1) Most people are genuinely excited to ask questions, many which are prompted by current events. Our virologist was asked about Ebola in August and our paleontologist was asked about the colossal dinosaur in September. Other examples of general questions include: How are memories formed? How accurate is the chemistry in Breaking Bad? And my personal favorite as a photophysical chemist: Why is the sky blue?

2) Some people interpret our “Ask a Scientist” prompt as, “Stump a Scientist.” At best these questions come from fellow scientists who good-naturedly know what is difficult to answer (like how do you cure x?). At worst, these questions come with sarcasm or a prepared (dare I say egotistical) lecture on what our answer missed.

3) The third type of question is political: How do you feel about fracking? Is global warming real? These questions usually lead to long conversations.

4) The final type of question seeks to understand who we are and why we created the booth: Who is coordinating this event?” Who is sponsoring this? When we share that we’re unsponsored and just having fun the response is usually something along the lines of, “This is very cool” or “Keep up the good work.”

So, if you happen to be in Tallahassee during the first Friday of any month, please stop by Railroad Square and our AaS booth. We’re always happy to say ‘hello’ and talk science. We also try to post ‘example questions’ each month to help prompt participation. So I welcome any accessible, general science questions you’ve heard as well.

By September 23, 2014 1 comment Uncategorized

Aspiring Graduate Students: You have questions, FSU Graduate Recruiting & Admissions Committee has answers!

Last December, Mike Shatruk, chair of Florida State University’s chemistry graduate recruiting & admissions committee, hosted an AMA (ask me anything) on reddit.com/r/chemistry. The post generated considerable interest with 191 upvotes and 178 comments. The questions ranged from job prospects to metrics for grad school acceptance.

This year we have decided to give it another try and this time a little earlier in the application timeline. Mike will also be joined by me, Ken Hanson, one of the newest members of the graduate recruiting & admissions committee.

So if you have any questions about graduate school or the admissions process please swing by reddit.com/r/chemistry/ on Tuesday September 16th beginning at 10:00 am (EDT). If you’re unable to join us on Sept. 16th, please feel free to share your questions below and I will make sure they make it on the AMA.

 

Update: Here is a link to the AMA.

By September 9, 2014 2 comments Uncategorized

A Year in the Life of a New Research Lab…in Less than One Minute

The Hanson Research Group’s first experiment—initiated my second day on the job—involved two strategically placed Brinno TLC200 time-lapse cameras programmed to take one photo per day. The video from our first camera that covered our less-trafficked support space was posted in March. Below is the video from our second camera, which was placed in the main lab and focused on one of our fume hoods.



By July 18, 2014 8 comments fun, general chemistry