The plants were just common weeds. The idea was to find out, if farmers faithfully weeded their plots, how long these annoying plants could keep coming up from seeds already in the dirt.
A botanist named William Beal wondered how long seeds could remain viable underground. So he designed an audacious study to find out, knowing full well that the answer might not come in his lifetime.
Frank Telewski spreads seeds from the Beal bottle in a tray in the growth lab in the Plant Biology Building.
Finally, Weber said, “OK, I — for real — found it!” Telewski greeted the bottles as if they were old friends. “Wow!” he said. “Oh, wow! Hello, bottles!”
Weber says it was really cool to pull a bottle out of the ground, knowing that “the last person to touch it was professor Beal, 140 years ago, you know, this person who was writing letters to Darwin.”
More than a century ago one of the longest-running experiments in the history of science was started at East Lansing, Michigan. Every 20 years, scientists check in on it. After an extra, pandemic-induced, delay the time was ripe again this week.
NPR reports that even with a precious map and Telewski’s memory, finding the spot in the dark proved harder than anticipated, and the team feared they would not be done by sunrise.
The bottle had its delayed moment of glory Wednesday morning, April 21. The inheritors of the Beal legacy are anxious to avoid vandals or the merely curious finding the remaining four bottles, so the location is a closely guarded secret, with digs occurring at night, in the dark, with shovels and torches. The recovered seeds were then placed in potting mix and put under lights, while being sealed away from contamination.
The Beal experiment is sometimes described as the world’s longest-running science experiment. However, the Guinness Book of Records gives that title to the Broadbalk Experiment, which has been studying the effects of fertilizers on winter wheat since1843, 36 years before Beal started.
Telewski, now in his 60s, has hand-picked three younger faculty members to assist him with the dig, and carry on the secret knowledge of the remaining bottles’ burial site. One described it as “A direct line to history.” That can be more challenging than simply not forgetting – any university plans to build or dig in the wrong place must be headed off without being too exact about where disturbance can’t happen. The team all feel the responsibility as custodians of a experiment that has become a matter of university pride. “With every interview I do I get more nervous about caring for these plants,” Dr David Lowry told IFLScience.