On August 26, Professor John Mainstone of the University of Queensland, Australia, died after suffering a stroke. He was 78 years old–a mere eight years younger than the famous experiment he oversaw.
The day he died, I was in a car with three friends, driving from Locksport, NY back to the city. I heard the news via Twitter late the next day, and by 6am the following morning, I was on a flight to Seattle for PAX Prime (which, I should tell you about at some point if you didn’t see me there). Sadly, with all the commotion, and with me working remotely on the road again, I’m only now finding the time to give him a proper write-up.
Mainstone inherited the Pitch Drop from Thomas Parnell in 1948, and during his tenure as the experiment’s custodian, became head of UQ’s Department of Physics. He was known for his sense of humor regarding his role as the guardian of a flask of tar, graciously accepting an IgNobel Award in 2005. He also stood watch over his hyperviscous ward long after he retired. Like an ancient sage, he protected the knowledge and lore surrounding the experiment (which was set up to measure the viscosity of bitumen) and acted as a conduit to the outside world, enthusiastically sharing in his stewardship.
Most tragically, Mainstone died without ever catching the experiment at the moment a drop fell. No easy task, the act was only recently captured by the Trinity College version of the experiment, under the watchful eye of a webcam. But he himself knew the greater scope of the experiment. The words in the sixth panel are his, and it would serve him well to see them passed on.
Mainstone named his successor long ago, and the experiment is now watched by Andrew White, a physicist at UQ and a former student.