In response to an amusing article by Mark Henderson in The Times (7/6/01), which then appeared in The Weekend Australian (9-10/6/01), I made the following comments:


I am sure that Thomas Parnell would have been flattered to know that Mark Henderson considers him worthy to become a recipient of an Ig Nobel prize. Professor Parnell's award citation would of course have to applaud the new record he had thereby established for the longest lead-time between performance of a seminal scientific experiment and the conferral of such an award, be it a Nobel or an Ig Nobel prize. If not a feather, then surely it would be at least some tar in the cap for The University of Queensland.

When I come to think of it, the Parnell Building at UQ already has a feather adorning it anyway. At my suggestion, several years ago the sculptor Rhyl Hinwood carved her Helidon-sandstone embellishments on either side of the Great Court entrance to the building to represent classical physics (Leaning Tower, feather, cannon balls) and quantum physics (Schrodinger's cat, dead and alive). Why not then go further, and let it be both tarred and feathered?

Technically speaking, the eighth drop in Parnell's famous Pitch-Drop demonstration experiment "fell" at the end of November last year, while I was overseas. Unfortunately the high-tech webcam's digital memory also suffered a bout of amnesia at the crucial moment. That was not all, however. When Parnell set up the demonstration in 1927 he could not have foreseen that during the gestation years of the eighth drop the University would decide to air-condition the two large lecture theatres in whose foyer the pitch resides, thus reversing the drop's seasonal experiences. That drop became by far the largest in the series, and when the time arrived for it to fall there was insufficient depth to the bottom of the beaker below for it to suffer a complete break.

We now face a terrible ethical dilemma. With the ninth drop already forming, do we cut the cord that ties (so that the new drop has a fair go) and perhaps also raise the funnel to a greater height above the beaker, in anticipation of another large drop forming, or do we leave Parnell's experiment undisturbed? Those with purist inclinations may care to remember that the much admired mediaeval cathedrals of Europe would not now be there for our enjoyment had it not been for the unceasing replacement of badly weathered stonework.

By the way, strange as it may seem to the uninitiated, there is actually some fascinating physics involved in the experiment, which some of us are hoping will continue for at least another hundred years - sympathetic custodians permitting.

Professor J S Mainstone
June, 2001

Professor J S Mainstone
Head, Centre for Astronomy & Atmospheric Research
Faculty of Sciences
The University of Southern Queensland
Toowoomba Q 4350
Visiting Scholar
School of Physical Sciences : Physics
The University of Queensland Q 4072