December 26, 2022

Patience Amid Long Experiments

The pitch-drop experiment teaches our faith community some lessons.

Justin Kim

A parody of the world-famous Nobel Prize, the Ig Nobel Prize was established in 1991 to recognize achievements that first “make people laugh, then think.”1 In 2005, this “honor” was given jointly to John Mainstone and the late Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland for one of the world’s longest experiments called the pitch-drop experiment. 

Derived from petroleum, pitch is a viscoelastic polymer used to waterproof boats, which is interestingly found in Genesis 6:14 and Exodus 2:3, where the thick liquid was applied over Noah’s and Moses’ arks, respectively. It is black in color, resulting in the English phrase “pitch black.” Being 230 billion times more viscous than water, these two professors sought to measure how long it took for one drop of pitch to fall. 

Starting in 1927, the famous experiment placed the black goo in a funnel. Apparently the first drop happened in 1938, then subsequently in 1947, 1954, and 1962. But note this: the researchers never witnessed a drop with their own eyes. By the time he joined the project, Dr. Mainstone missed the fifth drop of 1970, was away for the weekend when the sixth one dropped in 1979, and stepped out for tea when the seventh happened in 1988. Thereafter, cameras were installed to catch the eighth drop, but the batteries ran out before it happened in 2000. Sadly, Mainstone passed away in 2013 without having seen a drop fall. 

More than 500 years ago, another long-term experiment started among God’s reforming church. This experiment tested whether the Bible was really the only source of authority for the Christian (sola scriptura), was the first source against which all other things were tested (prima scriptura), and whether the entire Bible could really be interpreted by itself (tota scriptura). Nearly 174 years ago this experiment began, and it continues its maturity in God’s Advent movement. 

This Adventist Review publication was created and circulated for this community, those who took these three ideas to their logical conclusions, resulting in the belief of the seventh-day Sabbath, the conditional immortality of the soul, Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary, and the imminent second return of Christ, amid many others. 

The pitch-drop experiment teaches our faith community some lessons. First, how many times have we sought to witness something remarkable, only to be sidelined by peripheral distractions? Like going away for the weekend, stepping out for tea, or having low batteries. How many blessings have we missed in Adventist history because of diversions such as conspiracy theories, politicized factions, pet theological tests, personality and temperament differences, and simple lukewarm indifference, just to name a few? 

Second, that which is developed in a decade can be over in one decisecond. Christ has stated clearly that no one knows the date, but we are warned that eschatological events will be speedy. “The end will come more quickly than men expect.”2 “Great changes are soon to take place in our world, and the final movements will be rapid ones.”3 

Third, we are to keep vigilant watch, not for the tenth drop, but the second return of Jesus; not some viscous petroleum goo, but the victorious glory of our Lord; not something remarkable, but the most amazing event in human history. As Paul reminds us, let us fix “our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2, NASB1995). 

As this new year arrives, how much closer are we to His advent? That tenth drop of pitch will come down assuredly. How much more the Lord Jesus? And this time, no one will miss it. 


2 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 631. 

3 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn. 1909, 1948), vol. 9, p. 11.