The World’s Longest Running Science Experiments


Ask a scientist, and he’d tell you that you can’t put a deadline on science. Research takes as long as it does because of how rigorous the modern scientific process is. Many high-profile experiments can take days – even weeks – to complete. 

Then there are the rare experiments that go on for so long that it seems like the researchers simply didn’t consider time as a pressing factor. Some of these experiments started over a century ago and are expected to go on for even longer, making them the longest-running science experiments in history. 

10. The Up Series

Duration: 56 years

While scientists are still the go-to guys for experiments, documentary filmmakers can occasionally fill those shoes, too. In fact, some particularly-noteworthy documentaries stand out as legit scientific experiments on their own, owing to their rigorous methods. Few, however, are as extensive and far-reaching as the Up series.

Started by Michael Apted, the documentary series is an ongoing experiment that started in 1964, and follows a group of 14 British children as they navigate through their regular lives. The kids were chosen from all socio-economic backgrounds, as the series aims to provide an insight into how your birth decides your future. Every seven years, the filmmakers check up on the subjects’ health, personal problems, mental health levels etc. 

It’s a rather interesting social experiment. Every subsequent episode of the decades-long series is named after the current age of the children; the 2019 episode was called 63 Up. The series provides an invaluable insight into how various, seemingly-random factors – like upbringing, diet, locality you grew up in, etc. – come together to influence our lives. 

9. The Ringing Bell

Duration: 180 years

The Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford isn’t particularly notable for being at the cutting edge of scientific research, or at least not that we know of. It does, however, hold a particularly interesting bell most of us don’t know about, which may also just be one of the oldest ongoing science experiments ever. 

The bell – connected with an old battery – has been continuously ringing for over 180 years, and has produced over 10 billion rings till now. What’s fascinating is that we’ve no idea what’s been keeping the bell ringing for so long, as we don’t really know what the battery is made out of. 

8. Bird-Watching

Duration: 120 years

If we dialed the clock back to about a hundred years ago, we’d find that Christmas used to be a particularly stressful period for the birds in North America. It was because everyone used to indulge in an informal – yet regular – festival tradition called the ‘side hunt’. Basically, it onvolved making small groups, heading out into the wilderness and killing as many birds as they could for fun. 

All that changed when an ornithologist (bird expert), Frank M. Chapman, approached them and offered something they couldn’t refuse. Rather than killing the birds, he argued, why don’t they count them? What followed may as well be one of the best cases of mass-convincing ever, as many hunter groups did end up signing up for the exercise. In time, it evolved from just a counting effort to something bigger, as they started tracking even more details about the birds and their migrating patterns. 

That experiment – the Christmas Bird Count – is still ongoing, and remains the longest-running volunteer-run science experiments in history. Thanks to their efforts, we now have comprehensive and regularly-updated data on migration patterns across North America.

7. E. Coli

Duration: 32 years

Tracking evolution is no easy task, looking at how long those type ofg experiments tend to take. If we want to accurately understand the effects of evolution – even on just one species – we need a much longer time to properly observe them than we usually have. Thankfully, that’s not a concern for some scientists.

Take the Long Term Evolution Experiment that started in 1988, which has – till now – studied over 65,000 generations of E.coli for subtle changes in its evolutionary cycle. It’s the most comprehensive study of evolution ever, and has produced some rather interesting results. One strain of E. coli, for example, learned how to use citrate as its main energy source during the course of the experiment, something that has never been observed in nature.

6. The Oldest Agricultural Experiment

Duration: 164 years

There have been many important experiments that have helped us understand the ecology of the world we live in, though few have been as elaborate as the Park Grass Experiment. Started in 1856 in one of the oldest research laboratories in the U.K., the experiment was originally aimed at understanding how agriculture works, especially in the context of fertilizers and yields.

Over the years, though, it has turned into something far more important, providing us with some invaluable insights into the evolution of plants and their biodiversity.

5. Monitoring Mt. Vesuvius

Duration: 179 years

Mt. Vesuvius is famous for wiping out the ancient civilization of Pompeii, to the extent that all we know about its culture comes from the ruins buried under heaps of volcanic ash. Till date, it’s one of the biggest natural disasters in human history, and one we pray doesn’t happen again. What’s even more worrying is that the mountain isn’t done yet. It’s still quite a seismic ally-active volcano, and remains one of the biggest threats to life on Earth due to how enormous it is. 

To monitor it, a laboratory was setup in 1841, is still one of the oldest laboratories studying live seismic data in the world. Contrary to popular opinion, the volcano isn’t inactive; only dormant, as some eruptions have even caused damage to nearby regions in the past. The observatory’s primary purpose is to keep a tab on the next massive explosion from the mountain. 

4. Counting Spots On The Sun

Duration: 400 years

Looking at the Sun and its surface is quite impossible for the average person, though for those who do it for a living, there are quite a few secrets hiding there. The mysterious black spots are one of them, and we still don’t exactly know what they’re for.

First discovered by Galileo around four hundred years ago, the spots keep changing. Some scientists came up with the idea that they should probably track that, as it seems important. Quite a few researchers have been continuously measuring the subtle changes in the spots ever since – all the while trying to figure out what they even do – making it one of the longest-running science efforts ever. 

Thanks to the people working on it, we now know that the spots may not be mysterious at all, but indicative of other phenomenon happening on the Sun’s surface in parallel. 

3. The Longest Musical Piece Ever Played

Duration: Planned for 639 years

There are many songs we consider to be unnecessarily long, which could be especially arduous if they turn out to be bad. Still, musicians continue to consider making long songs a technical skill, taking away from the beauty of a short and crisp number.

The longest song ever played, however, isn’t by any new-age DJ or pop-rock band. It’s actually being played right now in a small town in Germany – Halberstadt – and is expected to go on for 639 years! It’s a piano-based number aptly named ‘As Slow As Possible’, and attracts a bunch of music enthusiasts from around the world. It’s going to be played till the year 2640, and the next tone change is about to happen on September 5, 2020

2. Harvard Study Of Adult Development

Duration: 80 years

The Gleuck and Grant studies – started by researchers in the Harvard University – are immensely important research tools for understanding social psychology, the nature vs. nurture debate and generally detailing how growing up affects our latter years. They’re quite popular and reliable, too, as many reputed researchers and institutes have used them as basis for their own comprehensive studies. In addition to that, they’re also a part of one of the longest running experiments in history.

Both the studies are going on at Harvard, and have been active for more than 80 years. While the Grant Study has been following 268 Harvard graduates from the classes of 1939-1944, the Gleuck Study has been tracking the lives of 456 males from the inner-city areas of Boston. Both of them cover the two extreme ends of the sociological and economical hierarchy of our society, which is also one of the biggest reasons they’ve been so successful.

1. The World’s Slowest Moving Liquid

Duration: 93 years

In 1927 – when the world was blissfully unaware of the catastrophic years ahead them – a rather fascinating experiment was being set up in the University of Queensland in Australia. They were getting ready to study a very mysterious material that remained in a solid state for all intents and purposes, as you can shatter it with a hammer. If you notice closely though, it’s not solid at all, but the slowest-moving liquid we know of.

We’re talking about pitch: a material derived from tar, petroleum, and even plants. We only know that it flows because of the experiment, as the pitch set up there has produced a drop only nine times till now. The last one happened recently, and the next one is expected to take another 14 years to complete.

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