Adventures in Physics

One afternoon, a long, long, time ago, two young men were making their way back to their residential college at the University of Queensland after attending the sort of bacchanalian soiree that made university worth going to. As they stumbled through the Great Court, they saw a paver had been pulled up. They stopped to look and saw the hole led to a tunnel, so they climbed down to explore. The tunnel ran along under the Great Court walkway and, as they followed it, they found some arcane objects.

So they souvenired a couple of those objects and brought them back to college as proof of their adventure. To their fellow collegians they proudly showed off their haul: a “cathode-ray oscilloscope” and a “mass spectrometer”. I don’t know what these are and I’m not sure they did either. They looked like old TVs with really small screens.

When they woke next morning to the cold light of day, they realised what they had done. Unwilling to either own-up or try to restore the objects to their subterranean home, they did the next best honourable thing: they set fire to the cathode-ray oscilloscope and the mass spectrometer and sent them off down the Brisbane River.

Had those objects not met with a fiery ending, they may instead have ended up in what is quite possibly the most boring museum on Earth: the Physics Museum at UQ. The Physics museum is so boring no one can even be bothered opening it and turning the lights on; you have to do it yourself. It is one glass-walled room in the Physics department, full of glass cabinets containing what look like ancient torture implements, all bakelite knobs with dials and wires.

Perhaps a “potentiometer” was something they wired up to new students to assess their, you know, potential? I was just disappointed there was no alethiometer.

van der Graf accelerator.
This would have made a great addition to the fiery farewell on the river!

The Concave Mirror
This is the type of crazy fun you can have at the Physics museum.

But the star of not just the Physics museum but the whole Physics department is the great Pitch Drop Experiment. This is, hands down, the most boring experiment in the world. Until it isn’t. When this thing actually does something it makes the news. It is literally more boring than watching paint dry, because at least that only takes a few hours and you can get excited about the subtly-changing hue.

The Pitch Drop Experiment was set up in 1927 to show how even though pitch might look like a solid, it is in fact a liquid. In the last 95 years, it has dropped nine times and, until cameras were trained on it 24/7, no one actually witnessed it drop, not even its creator Professor Thomas Parnell (after whom the building is named). Now you can log on any time from anywhere and watch the pitch thinking about dropping.

You’re welcome.

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