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Never Quite Now

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We kick things off with one of the longest-running experiments in the world. As Joshua Foer explains, the Pitch Drop Experiment is so slow, you can watch it for hours (check out the live cam) and not detect the slightest movement. But that doesn't mean nothing's happening. Professor John Mainstone tells us about his desperate attempts to catch the flashes of action hiding inside this decades-long experiment.

Then, Carl Zimmer joins us for a little recalibration. It’s hard to imagine anything faster than a thought that just pops into your head. But that kind of thinking is actually wrong-headed. In reality, thoughts are achingly, even disturbingly slow. Seth Horowitz, author of The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind, helps us discover our fastest possible thought, and fight our way back into the now.


Joshua Foer, Seth Horowitz, John Mainstone and Carl Zimmer

Comments [37]

Beedy Parker from Camden, ME

You are talking about electrical activity in our bodies, or at least in the nervous system (there's more to it than that, transport across cell membranes for instance...). Why is it that we trust that environmental electrical activity, microwaves, electromagnetic fields, which are escalating into a roar around us (very commercially viable, good for the economy...) does not affect our bodies, and that subset, our brains. Is it all so "wonderful" that we can't question the safety of these devices and systems we love so much.

Feb. 03 2018 12:22 PM
David from California

Revealing the fallacies of contemporary conventional wisdom is one of my hobbies, dude, and it's a lot more challenging than collecting stamps or leaving lame, trollish comments on NPR comment streams. I would have thought the moderator would have cut your comment since it is neither substantive nor civil.

Feb. 02 2017 12:10 AM

I can not find the audio segment which references Maidstone death. I remember being very moved by that moment. Can anyone please provide the timestamp?

Dec. 13 2016 12:00 PM

David Charbonneau ... get a hobby or something man. jeez.

Dec. 10 2016 07:04 PM
David Charbonneau from Los Angeles

As is so often the case with RadioLab, your adulation of science blinds you to your basic errors in discursive logic. We do not need to "fight our way back into the now" by blowing off a pop gun behind our ever loving ears. Nor is it any way "sad" that our neurons are slower than fiber optic cable in transmitting messages. Let me take the second, affective error first and then end with the true reductio ad absurdum of your notion of the now. Our nerves are surely slower than telegraph wires or fiber optic cable, but that is something to celebrate not mourn, for they are also infinitely more adaptable than fiber optic cable--indeed the less capacity for change you put into a signal relay system, the faster it is going to go; the more capacity for self-invention and environmental adaptability you put in, the slower it is going to go. Those gaps between neurons are not a mistake; they're there so that new pathways and multiple firing pathways can be more easily created--they are the source of the rich multiplicity of consciousness; thanks to this system we get the complete works of Shakespeare and Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. As the old saying goes, there is a crack in everything that's made; that's where the light gets in. Now, to the more demonstrably ridiculous, rather than merely misanthropic, assumption regarding the missing now. Quite arbitrarily, you assume that the present is something that must be happening "out there" (in the sensed environment) rather than "in here" in the experience of consciousness. The problem with this definition of the present is that such a present cannot possibly ever exist. It doesn't matter whether the delay is .25 seconds or .000000000000000000025 seconds (or whatever the time gap is between the photons leaving my living room light bulb and striking my eye). The fact is that there is always a delay between external event and perception. Something is either now or not now, by definition--there is no almost now--that's just a very recent past putting on airs. To define the present as you have done in this piece is thus to define it, by simple logic, out of existence. If the now, however, is defined as the experience of conscious awareness (not of a particular thought itself, but of that which is aware of the thought), then we are never not in the now, already. It doesn't matter that the light is .250000000000025 seconds behind the moment it left the light bulb, it is always being experienced NOW. There is no gap between the world and us--we are always, already in the midst of the experience of a world that includes both perceiver and perceived and the gaps between. Mind the gap and you'll see that that is, in fact, where the present actually is, or else, by irrefutable logic and the speed limit of light itself, it lies nowhere at all in a perceived universe.

Dec. 08 2016 01:34 AM
Randy Zeitman from United States

It's not the real drop ... it's a stunt drop.

Nov. 17 2014 08:11 PM

It happened

Nov. 17 2014 06:55 PM
Loren from Michigan, USA

Check out this video of No. 9:

Apr. 19 2014 03:38 PM
DavMah from California

The pitch has dropped!

Apr. 18 2014 05:16 PM
Carrie McPeak from Madras, OR

Although Trinity College has documented a drop of pitch falling, really, this is a story about people and their dedication and curiosity. It's heartbreaking that Professor Mainstone of the University of Queensland passed away without having seen his beloved "experiment" in its moment of glory. Keep watch over the Pitch Drop Experiment, and in a small way honor this charming man:

Oct. 21 2013 12:02 AM
Al from Melbourne, Australia

Sadly, Professor John Maidstone has died. Adds a poignant coda to this story, that he waited so long and never did get to see that damn pitch drop. RIP.

Aug. 26 2013 04:41 AM
P Costello from Central, NJ, USA

Trinity College, Dublin captures a pitch drip on camera this week.

Jul. 20 2013 04:03 PM
Lynn from Radiolab

Hey guys, just a quick update/clarification for you. Some pitch has dropped, but it's not THIS pitch. There is another pitch drop experiment in Ireland that's a little younger than the one we covered (a fresh-faced 69 years old, vs 86 for the Queensland experiment). Still, it's pretty damn exciting to see the little drop actually fall:

Jul. 19 2013 03:07 PM
Matt from Alexandria, VA

It Dropped!!!

Jul. 19 2013 12:59 PM
keenanj from from the lower east side

I am a biologist/psychologist that was actually on this show once (or twice). I love that a show this entertaining also informs the ignorant like myself. Had I not listened, I wouldn't have been able to see (now literally) this incredible experiment. Thank you RL.

Jul. 19 2013 08:38 AM

You obviously already know, but I just had to come here and say something when I found out the drop of pitch had fallen! I was oddly excited to hear the news and watch the video. I hope you'll do a follow-up story!

Jul. 18 2013 03:12 PM
Mugdho Debnath

So it looks like they captured the pitch drop experiment on camera for the first time in 69 years finally. I remember this episode was what introduced me to the experiment, so had to be the first to comment on its success :). Details here -

Jul. 18 2013 12:20 PM
Chris from Minneapolis MN

Second oldest pitch drop experiment has observed a drop... little sad for the Aussies.

Jul. 18 2013 11:14 AM
Karla from Atlanta, GA

Surreal is taking a twilight nap while listening to radio lab. I don't know what I heard and what I created. But I want to know - as the drop released, what did the separation point look like? Did it let go molecule by molecule, long string drips holding on to the host as long as possible or, once started, break free quickly? How long did the drop take to become absorbed by the previous drips and lose its identity?

May. 05 2013 08:58 PM

@cmih, the experiment was conducted to show that some materials which are generally considered solid are actually highly viscous liquids. Also, they calculated that pitch had a viscosity approximately 230 billion (2.3×1011) times that of water.

The experiment is quite trivial, but is indeed an experiment

May. 05 2013 03:21 PM

Here is a definition of "experiment" from Wikipedia:
"An experiment is an orderly procedure carried out with the goal of verifying, falsifying, or establishing the validity of a hypothesis. Experiments provide insight into cause-and-effect by demonstrating what outcome occurs when a particular factor is manipulated."

What I want to know is how this "pitch drop" observation qualifies as an "experiment". What condition is being controlled or manipulated?

May. 04 2013 03:16 PM

Here is a kinetic sculpture which will take 2 TRILLION YEARS to complete.

One of Arthur Ganson's kinetic sculptures, shown above, is a motor that turns at 212 RPM. It's attached to a series of twelve 50-1 reduction gear couplings. The final gear is fixed in a block of concrete. If it were free to turn, it would make a complete revolution in about two trillion years.

May. 03 2013 04:25 PM
sethifus from Indianapolis, IN

Here's a song I wrote about the Pitch Drop Experiment:

Mar. 10 2013 10:56 PM
John from Indiana

@Tati: yes, the pressure is proportional to depth of the "liquid" in the funnel, so the flow should slow as the funnel empties. But I'm sure they've taken that into account.

@vegarwe: the frame rate is faster than 1 fps. Look close and you'll see that the second hand jumps in 1 sec increments, so at first glance it looks like the camera is just taking 1 picture per second. But the framerate is faster than that- if you look close you'll see that the second hand doesn't quite jump a complete increment in a single frame.

Mar. 05 2013 07:53 PM
Lisa from NYC

Maybe I don't fully understand the resources required to set up the pitch drop experiment, but why is there just a singular experiment every 7 to 8 years? Why don’t they set up dozens of these experiments days/weeks/months apart in order to have a continuous result eight years later from the time each one was started. Once the first drop falls, you know the rest will follow!

It doesn’t make sense to wait eight years to start the process again.

Looking forward to seeing the results!

Feb. 22 2013 03:56 PM
guycq from Ottawa, Canada

I too had the issue of the video stream not displaying using the present version of the website. However, I was successful viewing the video by viewing the February 6 cached version of the website. I surmise that the video is indeed live as the clock adjacent ot the pitch experiment is showing the current current Queensland, Astralia time. To view the video, follow these steps:
1) Use the "wayback machine". Go to:
2) Insert the pitch experiment address into the "Take Me Back" entry box
3) Click on: Take Me Back
4) Select February 6 on the Calendar. This brings up the older version of the website with the functioning video stream.

Feb. 20 2013 11:10 AM
Tati from Whidbey Island, WA

So... here is a question (I am not super good in physics so it might be a silly question). Does the amount of matter in the funnel changes the speed at which it falls? If so, could it be that the amount of time between drops fall is longer and longer. Maybe everybody is waiting right now for nothing and it will happen much later?

Feb. 19 2013 11:58 PM

Couldn't somebody related to this experiment (or even some IT student at the same university) just please donate a better webcam to these guys. High definition and maybe with a slight higher frame rate then once pr second...

Feb. 18 2013 12:09 PM
Seth from St. Louis, MO

It's a terrible set-up...the one time the cam seemed to be working (second hand moving) I noted that the camera is far from the experiment and at a terrible angle. I does not seem to be working now. What a pity they are not being more sophisticated about it.

Feb. 10 2013 10:24 PM

Looks like the live feed is back! And Sarah, it's not the usual video setup - - you don't need to click on the photo. But you should be able to see the second-hand moving on the clock; if not, it may be a Flash or browser issue.

Feb. 08 2013 08:06 AM
Sarah Siddell from Berkeley CA

Tried Steve's web address. Got an additional photo, but clicking on it got me nowhere. Any suggestions? It's no fun without the live web cam!

Feb. 07 2013 08:33 PM

Feb. 07 2013 04:02 PM
HLC from New Jersey

Pitch drop feed is not visible on the website. You have to go through the cached link as "mlee" noted.

Feb. 07 2013 12:15 PM
mlee from Mpls MN

Live feed was on the page yesterday yesterday; didn't see it this morning. Although when I accessed the site through a cached version of the page, I could see the video feed again. Maybe the pitch is determined to "drip in private" once again!

Feb. 07 2013 11:26 AM
Mas from PA

Looks like the live video was taken down???? Anyone else not seeing it?

Feb. 07 2013 11:03 AM
eville from Ellenville, NY USA

Frankly, I never realized I could learn as much so fast about something so slow. Bravo.

p.s.Here's to Professor Mainstone finally reaping the rewards of 50+ years of patience.

Feb. 06 2013 01:39 PM

Why not just setup Pitch Drop Experiments?

Feb. 06 2013 11:20 AM

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