15 of the Longest-Running Scientific Studies in History

Most experiments are designed to be done quickly. Get data, analyze data, publish data, move on. But the universe doesn’t work on nice brief timescales. For some things you need time. Lots of time.


In 1842, John Bennet Lawes patented his method for making superphosphate (a common, synthetic plant nutrient) and opened up what is believed to be the first artificial fertilizer factory in the world. The following year, Lawes and chemist Joseph Henry Gilbert began a series of experiments comparing the effects of organic and inorganic fertilizers, which are now the oldest agricultural studies on Earth. For over 150 years parts of a field of winter wheat have received either manure, artificial fertilizer, or no fertilizer. The results are about what you’d expect: artificial and natural fertilized plots produce around six to seven tons of grain per hectare, while the unfertilized plot produces around one ton of grain per hectare. But there’s more. They can use these studies to test everything from herbicides to soil microbes and even figure out oxygen ratios for better reconstruction of paleoclimates.


Lawes and Gilbert started several more experiments at around the same time. In one of these experiments with hay, Lawes observed that each plot was so distinct that it looked like he was experimenting with different seed mixes as opposed to different fertilizers. The nitrogen fertilizers being applied benefited the grasses over any other plant species, but if phosphorus and potassium were the main components of the fertilizer, the peas took over the plot. Since then, this field has been one of the most important biodiversity experiments on Earth.


Yet another one of Lawes’ experiments: In 1882 he abandoned part of the Broadbalk experiment to see what would happen. What happened was that within a few years, the wheat plants were completely outcompeted by weeds—and then trees moved in [PDF]. In 1900, half of the area was allowed to continue as normal and the other half has had the trees removed every year in one of the longest studies of how plants recolonize farmland.


In 1879, William Beal of Michigan State University buried 20 bottles of seeds on campus. The purpose of this experiment was to see how long the seeds would remain viable buried underground. Originally, one bottle was dug up every five years, but that soon changed to once every 10 years, and is now once every 20 years. In the last recovery in 2000, 26 plants were germinated, meaning slightly more than half survived over 100 years in the ground. The next will be dug up in 2020, and (assuming no more extensions) the experiment will end in 2100.

Even if it is extended for a while, there will probably still be viable seeds. In 2008, scientists were able to successfully germinate a circa-2000 year old date palm seed, and four years later, Russian scientists were able grow a plant from a 32,000 year old seed that had been buried by an ancient squirrel.


If you hit a mass of pitch (the leftovers from distilling crude oil) with a hammer, it shatters like a solid. In 1927, Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland in Australia decided to demonstrate to his students that it was actually liquid. They just needed to watch it for a while. Some pitch was heated up and poured into a sealed stem glass funnel. Three years later, the stem of the funnel was cut and the pitch began to flow. Very slowly. Eight years later, the first drop fell. Soon the experiment was relegated to a cupboard to collect dust, until 1961 when John Mainstone learned of its existence and restored the test to its rightful glory. Sadly, he never saw a pitch drop. In 1979 it dropped on a weekend, in 1988 he was away getting a drink, in 2000 the webcam failed, and he died before the most recent drop in April 2014.

As it turns out, the Parnell-initiated pitch drop experiment isn’t even the oldest. After it gathered international headlines, reports of other pitch drop experiments became news. Aberystwyth University in Wales found a pitch drop experiment that was started 13 years before the Australian one, and has yet to produce a single drop (and indeed is not expected to for another 1300 years), while the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh found a pitch drop experiment from 1902. All of them prove one thing though: With enough time, a substance that can be shattered with a hammer still might be a liquid.


Around 1840, Oxford physics professor Robert Walker bought a curious little contraption from a pair of London instrument makers that was made up of two dry piles (a type of battery) connected to bells with a metal sphere hanging in between them. When the ball hit one of the bells, it became negatively charged and shot towards the other positively charged bell where the process repeats itself. Because it uses only a minuscule amount of energy, the operation has occurred ten billion times and counting. It’s entirely possible that the ball or bells will wear out before the batteries fully discharge.

Although we don’t know the composition of the battery itself (and likely won’t until it winds down in a few hundred years), it has led to scientific advancements. During WWII, the British Admiralty developed an infrared telescope that needed a battery capable of producing high voltage, low current, and that could last forever. One of the scientists remembered seeing the Clarendon Dry Pile—also referred to as the Oxford Electric Bell—and was able to find out how to make his own dry pile for the telescope.


Sitting in the foyer of the University of Otago in New Zealand is the Beverly Clock. Developed in 1864 by Arthur Beverly, it is a phenomenal example of a self-winding clock. Beverly realized that, while most clocks used a weight falling to get the energy to run the clock mechanism, he could get the same energy with one cubic foot of air expanding and contracting over a six-degree Celsius temperature range. It hasn’t always worked; there have been times it needed cleanings, it stopped when the Physics department moved, and if the temperature is too stable it can stop. But it’s still going over 150 years later.


Since 1900, folks from across the continent have spent time counting birds. What began as an activity to keep people from hunting our feathered friends on Christmas Day, has turned into one of the world’s most massive and long-lasting citizen science projects. Although the 2015 results aren’t ready yet, we know that in 2014, 72,653 observers counted 68,753,007 birds of 2106 species.


One of the longest running development studies, in 1938 Harvard began studying a group of 268 sophomores (including one John F. Kennedy), and soon an additional study added 456 inner-city Bostonians. They’ve been followed ever since, from World War II through the Cold War and into the present day, with surveys every two years and physical examinations every five. Because of the sheer wealth of data, they’ve been able to learn all kinds of interesting and unexpected things. One such example: The quality of vacations one has in their youth often indicates increased happiness later in life.


In 1921, 1470 California children who scored over 135 on an IQ test began a relationship that would turn into one of the world’s most famous longitudinal studies—the Terman Life Cycle Study of Children with High Ability.  Over the years, in order to show that early promise didn’t lead to later disappointment, participants filled out questionnaires about everything from early development, interests, and health to relationships and personality.  One of the most interesting findings is that, even among these smart folk, character traits like perseverance made the most difference in career success.


Starting in 1940, the UK’s National Food Survey tracked household food consumption and expenditure, and was the longest lasting program of its kind in the world. In 2000 it was replaced with the Expenditure and Food Survey, and in 2008 the Living Costs and Food Survey. And it’s provided interesting results. For instance, earlier this year it was revealed that tea consumption has fallen from around 23 cups per person per week to only eight cups, and no one in the UK ate pizza in 1974, but now the average Brit eats 75 grams (2.5 ounces) a week.


In 1948, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute teamed up with Boston University to get 5209 people from the town of Framingham to do a long-term study of how cardiovascular disease developed. Twenty-three years later they also recruited the adult children of the original experiment and in 2002 a third generation. Over the decades, the Framingham Heart Study researchers claim to have discovered that cigarette smoking increased risk, in addition to identifying potential risk factors for Alzheimer’s, and the dangers of high blood pressure.


While this one might not seem that impressive in terms of length, it has to be the record for number of generations that have come and gone over the course of the study: well over 50,000. Richard Lenski was curious whether flasks of identical bacteria would change in the same way over time, or if the groups would diverge from each other. Eventually, he got bored with the experiment, but his colleagues convinced him to keep going, and it’s a good thing they did. In 2003, Lenski noticed that one of flasks had gone cloudy, and some research led him to discover that the E. coli in one of the flasks had gained the ability to metabolize citrate. Because he had been freezing previous generations of his experiment, he was able to precisely track how this evolution occurred.


Sadly, sometimes things can go terribly wrong during long-term experiments. Between 1990 and 1992, British scientists collected thousands of sheep brains. Then, for over four years, those prepared sheep brains were injected into hundreds of mice to learn if the sheep brains were infected with BSE (mad-cow disease). Preliminary findings suggested that they were, and plans were drawn up to slaughter every sheep in England. Except those sheep brains? They were actually cow brains that had been mislabeled. And thus ended the longest running experiment on sheep and BSE.


Attention to glacier retreat and the effects of global warming on the world’s ice fields has rapidly increased over the course of the last few decades, but the Juneau Icefield Research Program has been monitoring the situation up north since 1948. In its nearly 70 years of existence, the project become the longest-running study of its kind, as well as an educational and exploratory experience. The monitoring of the many glaciers of the Juneau Icefield in Alaska and British Columbia has a rapidly approaching end date though—at least in geological terms. A recent study published in the Journal of Glaciology predicts that the field will be gone by 2200.

Fossilized Fat Shows 550-Million-Year-Old Sea Creature May Have Been the World's First Animal

Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University
Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University

A bizarre sea creature whose fossils look like a cross between a leaf and a fingerprint may be Earth's oldest known animal, dating back 558 million years.

As New Scientist reports, researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) made a fortunate find in a remote region of Russia: a Dickinsonia fossil with fat molecules still attached. These odd, oval-shaped creatures were soft-bodied, had rib structures running down their sides, and grew about 4.5 feet long. They were as “strange as life on another planet,” researchers wrote in the abstract of a new paper published in the journal Science.

Another variety of fossil
Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University

Although Dickinsonia fossils were first discovered in South Australia in 1946, researchers lacked the organic matter needed to classify this creature. "Scientists have been fighting for more than 75 years over what Dickinsonia and other bizarre fossils of the Edicaran biota were: giant single-celled amoeba, lichen, failed experiments of evolution, or the earliest animals on Earth,” senior author Jochen Brocks, an associate professor at ANU, said in a statement.

With the discovery of cholesterol molecules—which are found in almost all animals, but not in other organisms like bacteria and amoebas—scientists can say that Dickinsonia were animals. The creatures swam the seas during the Ediacaran Period, 635 million to 542 million years ago. More complex organisms like mollusks, worms, and sponges didn’t emerge until 20 million years later.

The fossil with fat molecules was found on cliffs near the White Sea in an area of northwest Russia that was so remote that researchers had to take a helicopter to get there. Collecting the samples was a death-defying feat, too.

“I had to hang over the edge of a cliff on ropes and dig out huge blocks of sandstone, throw them down, wash the sandstone, and repeat this process until I found the fossils I was after,” lead author Ilya Bobrovskiy of ANU said. Considering that this find could change our understanding of Earth’s earliest life forms, it seems the risk was worth it.

[h/t New Scientist]

The Weird, Disturbing World of Snail Sex


Romance is rare in the animal kingdom. Instead of wooing their partners before copulating, male ducks force themselves onto females, depositing genetic material with spiky, corkscrew penises. Then, there's tardigrade sex, which is less violent but not exactly heartwarming. Females lay eggs into a husk of dead skin. The male then ejaculates onto the eggs while stroking the female, and the whole process can take up to an hour.

But you can't talk about disturbing mating rituals in nature without mentioning snails. If you're unfamiliar with snail sexuality, you may assume that snail sex falls on the vanilla side: The mollusks, after all, are famous for being slow-moving and they don't even have limbs. But if you have the patience to watch a pair of snails going at it, you'll notice that things get interesting.

The first factor that complicates snail sex is their genitalia. Snails are hermaphrodites, meaning individuals have both a male set and female set of parts, and any two snails can reproduce with each other regardless of sex. But in order for a couple of snails to make little snail babies, one of them needs to take on the role of the female. That's where the love dart comes in.

The love dart, technically called a gypsobelum, isn't exactly the Cupid's arrow the name suggests. It's a nail-clipping-sized spike that snails jab into their partners about 30 minutes before the actual sex act takes place. The sliver is packed with hormones that prepare the receiving snail's body for sperm. Depending on the species, only one snail might release the dart, or they both might in an attempt to avoid becoming the female of the pair. You can watch the action in the video below.

For sex to be successful, both snails must insert their penises into the other's vaginal tracts at the same time. Both snails deposit sperm, and the strength of the love dart ultimately determines whether or not that sperm fertilizes their partner's eggs.

That's assuming the snail survives the little love-stab. In human proportions, the love dart is the equivalent of a 15-inch knife. Fortunately, snails are resilient creatures, and gastropod researcher Joris Koene tells KQED he's only ever seen one snail die from the transfer.

Snails also have a way of making it up to their partners after skewering them with a hormone stick. Their sperm deposit contains a dose of fortifying nutrients, something scientists refer to as a nuptial gift. It may not equal the energy expended during sex, but its enough to give them a small post-coital boost.