Particle physics experiments

One of the oldest science experiments in the world has just resumed in secret


Over a century ago, one of the oldest experiments in the history of science was started in East Lansing, Michigan. Every 20 years, scientists realize this. After further delay induced by the pandemic, the time was right again this week.

In April 1879, William Beal buried 20 bottles, each filled with sandy soil and over 1,000 weed seeds common to the region in a secret location on what is now the Michigan State University campus. Before herbicides, Beal hoped knowing how long the seeds can survive in the soil would help farmers combat them. The bottles were placed with their openings down so the seeds could not germinate, but every 5 years Beale planned to dig up a bottle and move the seeds to fertile soil, revealing what posed a long-term threat. .

Had the experiment worked out according to Beal’s original plans, it would have survived him for a long time, but still ended at the end of the last century. However, in 1920, with only a few species still making their presence felt, it was decided that the 5-year cycle was obsolete. The remaining bottles have been dug up every 20 years since, leaving the fifth final bottle to be recovered last year until fears the team was locked out of the building they hoped to germinate the seeds in led to. to a postponement.

The bottle enjoyed its delayed moment of glory on Wednesday morning, April 21. The heirs of the Beal Legacy are keen to avoid vandals or the mere curious to find the four remaining bottles, so the location is a well-kept secret, with excavations taking place at night, in the dark, with shovels and torches. The collected seeds were then placed in potting soil and placed under light, while being sealed away from contamination.

Many of the Beal species included in the bottles stopped germinating during the first years of the experiment. A few, however, were found to be more resistant, and in 2000 Beal Botanical Garden curator Professor Frank Telewski germinated nearly half of the 50 mullein seeds, along with a solitary Malva rotundifolia. Obviously, these so-called weeds have nothing to the Judean dates.

Telewski, now in his sixties, handpicked three young professors to help him with the digs and perpetuate the secret knowledge of the burial site of the remaining bottles. One of them described it as “a direct line to history”. It can be more difficult than just remembering – any college project to build or dig in the wrong place needs to be directed without being too specific about where disruption cannot occur. The whole team feels responsible as the guardian of an experience that has become a university pride. “With every interview I do, I get more nervous about taking care of these plants,” Dr David Lowry told IFLScience.

NPR reports that even with a valuable map and Telewski’s memory, finding the location in the dark turned out to be more difficult than they expected, and the team feared it might not happen at sunrise.

Professor Frank Telewski examines the seeds after they have been transferred to a potting tray. From past experience, the vast majority will not be viable, but a few may still prosper. Image Credit: Derrick L. Turner / Michigan State University

For completeness, most of the 50 representatives of each species have been replanted, but a few specimens from less successful lines have been given to molecular biologist Dr Margaret Fleming to investigate the state of the internal cellular machinery. While the experiment initially replicates previous years as closely as possible, the team plans to try a few new tips on seeds that fail early on. Eight of the 21 species have not germinated even after five years, and one of them is known as a fireweed. Noting how many plants in Australia and South Africa need smoke to germinate, the team told IFLScience they plan to expose the failure plateau and see if the fireweed ignites.

Beal’s experiment is sometimes described as the oldest scientific experiment in the world. However, the Guinness Book of Records gives that title to the Broadbalk experiment, which has studied the effects of fertilizers on winter wheat since 1843, 36 years before Beal’s start.

Over the 20-year cycle, Beal’s bottles will run out in 2100, 221 years after the start of the experiment. Seven years ago, a long-term bacterial viability study, perhaps inspired by Beal’s work, aimed to more than double, with the ambition to last 500 years.

This week in IFLScience

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