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physics.ox.ac.uk/Erin McCarthy

What’s the World’s Longest Running Science Experiment?

physics.ox.ac.uk/Erin McCarthy
physics.ox.ac.uk/Erin McCarthy

Between our look at the longest prison sentences the other day and the 69-year-old pitch drop experiment finally getting caught on camera last month, reader Justin got curious and wrote in to ask, “What’s the longest experiment that scientists have filled their decades or lifetimes with?”

While the pitch drop gets the nod for longest uninterrupted duration, there are at least two projects that started before it and keep going today, but have had some stops and starts along the way. The older of the two, and grand champion for years-in-progress, is the Oxford Electric Bell, a.k.a. the Clarendon Dry Pile.

The bell, as the name suggests, is an experimental electric bell kept at the University of Oxford’s Clarendon Library. It was built by Watkin and Hill, an instrument-making firm in London, and purchased by Robert Walker, a professor at Oxford. In 1840, he set it ringing. Today the bell still tolls. 

The bell is actually two metal bells, with a metal clapper set between them. The clapper is powered by two “dry piles,” an early form of battery.  Dry piles were normally composed of alternating strips of metal foil and paper—sometimes hundreds or thousands of layers thick—like electric club sandwiches. A variety of metals could be used, but Watkin and Hill left no record of what their piles were made of. 

Scientists are eager to find out just how long the mystery battery can go, and then open it up and find out what it's made of, but the whole thing is a bit of a waiting game. Whatever its makers used, the device has some staying power. Guinness World Records called the bell’s dry piles the “world’s most durable battery,” and for one hundred and seventy three years, minus occasional interruptions, the bell has been ringing. 

The clapper oscillates between the two bells at a usual frequency of 2Hz, or two cycles per second, depending on the weather. High humidity can cause the clapper’s movement to slow and even stop, but when the humidity drops the bell can begin again without external intervention. As the clapper strikes and rings one bell, the corresponding dry pile charges and electrostatically repels it. The clapper then swings toward the other bell, and the same thing happens. 

Because there’s just little bits of energy being discharged through the process, the drain on the battery—whatever it's made of—is very small, so it can happen again and again and again, causing a continuous ring. If we fudge a little and say that the clapper has had a 2Hz frequency for the entire 173 years, that means it’s made a whopping 10,911,456,000 strikes against those bells. 

Eventually, the electrochemical energy of the dry cells will be exhausted and the bell will go quiet. Not knowing what powers the contraption, though, no one is sure when that will happen, and silence instead could come when the clapper or one of the bells wears out. Not that anyone can hear it, anyway: To keep the patrons of the Clarendon Library from going mad from the noise, the bell is kept encased in sound-damping glass. 

The second longest-running experiment is an experimental clock (called the Beverly Clock) in New Zealand that's been ticking since 1864 without needing to be wound, and is driven by variations in atmospheric pressure and temperature.

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Big Questions
How Do Aerial Skiers Perfect Their Jumps?
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images

If you've ever watched an aerial skier in action, you know that some of the maneuvers these athletes pull off are downright jaw-dropping—and you've probably seen more than a few of these skiers land on their rear ends at some point. The jumps are incredible, but they're also so technical that one seemingly insignificant motion can drop a skier on his or her tail.

Given that the skiers can fly up to 60 feet in the air and come down on a 37-degree grade, it seems like just going out and trying a new trick would be a good way to break your neck. That's why you'll need one unexpected piece of equipment if you want to start training for aerials: a towel.

Instead of perfecting their flips and twists over the snow, aerial skiers try out their new maneuvers on ramps that launch them over huge swimming pools. The U.S. national team has facilities in Park City, Utah and Lake Placid, New York that include specially designed pools to help competitors perfect their next big moves. The pools have highly aerated patches of bubbles in their centers that decrease the surface tension to make the water a bit softer for the skiers' landings.

If you're an aspiring aerial skier, expect to get fairly wet. New skiers have to make a minimum of 200 successful jumps into water before they even get their first crack at the snow, and these jumps have to get a thumbs up from coaches in order for the skier to move on.

This sort of meticulous preparation doesn't end once you hit the big-time, either. American Ashley Caldwell, one of the most decorated athletes in the sport, is competing in her third Olympics in Pyeongchang, but failed to advance past the qualifiers on February 15, as she wasn't able to land either one of the two triple-flipping jumps she attempted. Still, it's this very sort of risk-taking that has brought her to the top of her game, and caused friction with more than one of her past coaches.

"Why win with less when you can win with more?" Caldwell said of her competition mentality. “I don’t want to go out there and show the world my easiest trick. I want to show the world my best trick, me putting everything on the line to be the best.”

You can check out some of Team USA's moves in the video below:

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Is There Really Such Thing As 'Muscle Memory'?
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Is there really such a thing as 'muscle memory'? For example, in the sense of your fingers remembering where the keys of the keyboard are?

C Stuart Hardwick:

Yes and no. There is no literal memory in the muscles, but the thing people call “muscle memory” exists, though the name is a misnomer.

A better name might be “subconscious memory,” as the information is stored in the brain, but is most readily accessible—or only accessible—by non-conscious means.

What “non-conscious” refers to here is the brain’s enormous capacity to train up what might almost be called “subroutines,” that exist outside our conscious experience. I like the term for this that at least one researcher in the field uses: “zombie agency.”

Zombie agents are non-conscious, or sub-conscious (in the literal, not the Freudian sense) that can do essentially everything you can do except make value judgments. So, for example, you don’t consciously know how to control your muscles in order to walk —in all likelihood, you wouldn’t know where to begin—but your zombie agents do, and they’ll take you wherever you want to go, dodging curbs and puppies, and “waking you” when appropriate to decide which babies to stop and kiss.

Zombie agents can be rather startling things. When you suddenly become aware that you’ve driven halfway across town in the direction of the office instead of going to the shoe store Saturday morning, you have zombie agents to thank. You “wake” as if from slumber, and with the frightening realization that you’ve been flying down the highway at prodigious speed while your mind was on other things. You feel as if you’ve been asleep, and in a way you have—but a very funny kind of sleep in which it is only the uppermost layer of abstract reason that is disassociated from the rest of conscious experience. Your zombie agents have been driving to work, responding to traffic, adjusting the radio, noting the check engine light, all the things you think of as “you, driving the car,” except the big one: deciding where to go. That part was on automatic pilot (which is another good way to think of this).

This is at the advanced end of the spectrum. Typing your friend’s phone number using “muscle memory” is at the other, but it’s the same phenomenon.

We didn’t evolve to remember phone numbers, so we aren’t very good at it. In fact, we are so bad at it, we invent all sorts of mnemonic devices (memory aids) to help us [in] relating numbers to words or spacial memory, either of which are closer to the hunting and gathering we are evolved for. The illusion of “muscle memory” arises because we are supremely well adapted to manual manipulation and tool-making. We don’t need to invent a memory aid to help us remember what we do with our hands, we only have to practice.

So the conscious mind says “dial Tabby’s number,” and our fingers—or more correctly, the zombie agent which learned that task—do it. Similarly, after sufficient training, we can do the same thing with tasks like “play a major fifth,” "drive to work,” or “pull an Airbus A380 up for a go-around.”

It feels like muscle memory because the conscious mind—the part you experience as being you—is acting like a coach driver, steering the efforts of a team of zombie agents, all harnesses to collective action. But it isn’t muscle memory, it's just memory—though it may be stored (or at least some of it) in the deeper, motor cortex parts of the brain.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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