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The Spaghetti Experiments: MIT Researchers Finally Solve The Noodle Mystery

Aug 14, 2018 01:22 AM EDT
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It might sound strange to learn that scientists sit around just breaking spaghetti, but it happens — and could lead to important scientific discoveries.

The Spaghetti Quandary

Dry spaghetti noodles aren't difficult to break, but it's nearly impossible to break them in only two pieces. Often, snapping them in two would result in three or more fragments.

It's a problem that flummoxed famed physicist Richard Feynman. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he once spent a frustrating evening breaking dry noodle sticks and attempting to find an explanation for the strange phenomenon.

Several decades later, French physicists theorized that breaking any long, thin rod such as a spaghetti stick will break near the center when broken evenly at either end. This produces a "snap-back effect" that fractures the stick even further.

But is there a way around the natural snap-back phenomenon?

MIT Figures Out A Solution

In a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, MIT mathematicians figured out how to snap a spaghetti into only two pieces. The process involved bending and twisting the noodle at a very specific degree.

The project began back in 2015, when Ronald Heisser, then a student at MIT and now a graduate student at Cornell University, began conducting manual trial to test the impossibility of breaking a spaghetti stick into two. Eventually, the idea emerged of twisting the noodle very hard and bringing both ends together, which appeared to work.

Heisser went on to build a mechanical device to twist and bend the spaghetti sticks, collaborating with MIT graduate student Vishal Patil for the experiments.

Patil also developed a mathematical model on how twisting can achieve breaking a stick in two, finding that a 10-inch-long spaghetti stick can get broken in two if it's twisted by about 270 degrees and then bent.

It turns out that twisting weakens the snap-back effect, while the twist-back when the stick is broken releases the extra energy that may result in more fracturing.

More Than Just Spaghetti

To reach their conclusion, the team had to experiment on hundreds and hundreds of dry spaghetti sticks. It's a worthwhile effort, though, because the findings are expected to have great effects on industries beyond the kitchen counter.

MIT reveals that it could affect how experts control fractures in other similarly long, thin rod-like structures such as multifiber structures, engineered nanotubes, or microtubules in cells.

"It will be interesting to see whether and how twist could similarly be used to control the fracture dynamics of two-dimensional and three-dimensional materials," co-author Jörn Dunkel, an associate professor of physical applied mathematics at MIT, says in a statement. "In any case, this has been a fun interdisciplinary project started and carried out by two brilliant and persistent students — who probably don't want to see, break, or eat spaghetti for a while."

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