MIT Students Solve the Spaghetti Breaking Mystery That Stumped Richard Feynman

Even thirty years after his death, Richard Feynman remains one of the most beloved minds in physics in part because of how much attention he paid to things other than physics: drawing and paintingcracking safes, playing the bongos, breaking spaghetti. But a physics enthusiast might object, and reasonably so, that all those activities actually have a great deal to do with physics, given the physical phenomena they all demonstrate and on which they all depend. In recent years, considerable scientific attention has even gone toward spaghetti-breaking, inspiring as it did Feynman — and computer scientist Danny Hillis, who happened to be in the kitchen with him — to pose a long-unanswerable question: How come it always breaks into a million pieces when you snap it?

Maybe spaghetti doesn't always break into a million pieces, exactly, but it never breaks in two. Discovering the secret to a clean two-part break did require a million of something: a million frames per second, specifically, shot by a camera aimed at a purpose-built spaghetti-breaking device. The results of the research, a project of students Ronald Heisser and Vishal Patil during their time at MIT, came out in a paper co-authored by MIT's Norbert Stoop and Université Aix Marseille's Emmanuel Villermaux, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team found, writes MIT News' Jennifer Chu, "that if a stick [of spaghetti] is twisted past a certain critical degree, then slowly bent in half, it will, against all odds, break in two."

As for why spaghetti breaks into so many pieces without the twist, a question taken on by the Smarter Every Day video just above, French scientists Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch won the Ig Nobel Prize by figuring that out in 2005: "When a stick is bent evenly from both ends, it will break near the center, where it is most curved. This initial break triggers a 'snap-back' effect and a bending wave, or vibration, that further fractures the stick." If you twist the stick first, "the snap-back, in which the stick will spring back in the opposite direction from which it was bent, is weakened in the presence of twist. And, the twist-back, where the stick will essentially unwind to its original straightened configuration, releases energy from the rod, preventing additional fractures."

So now we know. But the fruits of what might strike some as an obsessive and pointless quest could well further the science of fracturing, which Patil describes to the Washington Post as an outwardly “chaotic and random” process. This research could lead, as Chu writes, to a better "understanding of crack formation and how to control fractures in other rod-like materials such as multifiber structures, engineered nanotubes, or even microtubules in cells." That's all a long way from the kitchen, certainly, but even the most revolutionary advancements of knowledge grow out of simple curiosity, an impulse felt even in the most mundane or frivolous situations. Richard Feynman understood that better than most, hence subsequent generations of scientists' desire to pick up whatever piqued his interest — even broken bits of Barilla No. 5.

via MIT News

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Steve Martin & Robin Williams Riff on Math, Physics, Einstein & Picasso in a Smart Comedy Routine

Back in 2002, Stanford University mathematics professor Robert Osserman chatted with comedian and banjo player extraordinaire Steve Martin in San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre. The event was called “Funny Numbers” and it was intended to deliver an off-kilter discussion on math. Boy did it deliver.

The first half of the discussion was loose and relaxed. Martin talked about his writing, banjos and his childhood interest in math. “In high school, I used to be able to make magic squares," said Martin. "I like anything kind of 'jumbly.' I like anagrams. What else do I like? I like sex."




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Then Robin Williams, that manic ball of energy, showed up. As you can see from the five videos throughout this post, the night quickly spiraled into comic madness.

They riffed on the Osbournes, Henry Kissinger, number theory, and physics. “Schrödinger, pick up your cat,” barks Williams at the end of a particularly inspired tear. “He’s alive. He’s dead. What a pet!”

When Martin and Williams read passages from Martin’s hit play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile Williams read his part at different points as if he were Marlon Brando, Peter Lorre and Elmer Fudd. At another time, Williams and Martin riffed on the number zero. Williams, for once acting as the straight man, asked Osserman, "I have one quick question, up to the Crusades, the number zero didn't exist, right? In Western civilization.” To which Martin bellowed, “That is a lie! How dare you imply that the number zero…oh, I think he’s right.”

The videos are weirdly glitchy, though the audio is just fine. And the comedy is completely hilarious and surprisingly thought provoking.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in September, 2015.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity Explained in One of the Earliest Science Films Ever Made (1923)

Albert Einstein developed his theory of special relativity in 1905, and then mentally mapped out his theory of general relativity between 1907 and 1915. For years to come, the rest of the world would try to catch up with Einstein, trying to understand the gist, let alone the full implications, of his groundbreaking ideas.

Above, you can watch one such attempt. Produced by Max and David Fleischer, best known for their Betty Boop and Superman cartoons, The Einstein Theory of Relativity used the power of animation to explain relativity to a broad, non-scientific audience in 1923. One of the first educational science films ever made, the silent animated film was created with the assistance of science journalist Garrett P. Serviss and other experts who had a handle on Einstein's theories. According to a biography of Max Fleischer, the film was "an out-and-out success." "The critics and the public applauded it. And Einstein did too, apparently deeming it an "excellent attempt to illustrate an abstract subject."

Watch the short film above. And find it added to our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.

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Newly Unearthed Footage Shows Albert Einstein Driving a Flying Car (1931)

During his lifetime, Albert Einstein apparently never learned to drive a car--something that also held true for Vladimir Nabokov, Ray Bradbury, Elizabeth Bishop, and Jack Kerouac. But he did manage to experience the thrill of getting behind the wheel, at least once. Above, watch a newly-discovered home movie of Einstein and his second wife, Elsa, visiting the Warner Bros. soundstage on February 3, 1931. The following day, The New York Times published this report:

Professor Einstein was surprised tonight into loud and long laughter.

Hollywood demonstrated its principles of "relativity," how it makes things seem what they are not, by use of a dilapidated motor car.

At the First National studio, German technicians persuaded Professor Einstein to change his mind about not being photographed and photographed him in the old car with Frau Elsa, his wife. He cannot drive a car.

Tonight the German technicians brought the film to the Einstein bungalow. The lights went out.

Then the ancient automobile appeared on the screen with Einstein at the wheel, driving Frau Elsa on a sight-seeing tour.

Down Broadway, Los Angeles they drove, then to the beaches. Suddenly the car rose like an airplane, and as Einstein took one hand from the wheel to point out the scenery, the Rocky Mountains appeared below. Then the car landed on familiar soil and the drive continued through Germany.

It was just a Hollywood trick of double exposure and a thrilling comedy, but not for the public. The master film was destroyed, and the only copy was given to the Einsteins.

That one surviving copy of the film eventually ended up in the archives at Lincoln Center, where it sat unnoticed for decades, until Becca Bender, an archivist, stumbled up on it last year. And fortunately now we can all enjoy that light moment shot so long ago.

To learn more about the discovery of the 1931 film, watch the video below. Or read this article over at From the Grapevine.

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Stephen Hawking’s Final Theory of the Cosmos Now Published & Available Online

Image by NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

In the weeks before he died, Stephen Hawking wrote what would be his final theory of the cosmos. Co-written with Belgian physicist Thomas Hertog, and now published in the Journal of High Energy Physics, "A smooth exit from eternal inflation?" asserts that "reality may be made up of multiple universes, but each one may not be so different to our own." Or so that's how the theory gets translated into colloquial English by The Guardian. You can read an abstract of the theory here, or the complete published version here.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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The Feynman Lectures on Physics, The Most Popular Physics Book Ever Written, Is Now Completely Online

Image by Tamiko Thiel, via Wikimedia Commons

In years past, we let you know that Caltech and The Feynman Lectures Website joined forces to create an online edition of The Feynman Lectures on Physics. They started with Volume 1. And they've since followed up with Volume 2 and Volume 3, making the collection complete.

First presented in the early 1960s at Caltech by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, the lectures were eventually turned into a book by Feynman, Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew Sands. The text went on to become arguably the most popular physics book ever written, selling more than 1.5 million copies in English, and getting translated into a dozen languages.




The new online edition makes The Feynman Lectures on Physics available in HTML5. The text “has been designed for ease of reading on devices of any size or shape,” and you can zoom into text, figures and equations without degradation. Dive right into the lectures here. And if you’d prefer to see Feynman (as opposed to read Feynman), we would encourage you to watch ‘The Character of Physical Law,’ Feynman’s  seven-part lecture series recorded at Cornell in 1964.

The Feynman Lectures on Physics is now listed in our collections of Free eBooks and Free Textbooks.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in August, 2014.

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The Famous Schrodinger’s Cat Thought Experiment Comes Back to Life in an Off-Kilter Animation

Schrödinger's Cat is one of the more famous thought experiments in modern physics, created by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger back in 1935.  The Telegraph summarizes the gist of the experiment as follows:

In the hypothetical experiment ... a cat is placed in a sealed box along with a radioactive sample, a Geiger counter and a bottle of poison.

If the Geiger counter detects that the radioactive material has decayed, it will trigger the smashing of the bottle of poison and the cat will be killed.

The experiment was designed to illustrate the flaws of the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of quantum mechanics, which states that a particle exists in all states at once until observed.

If the Copenhagen interpretation suggests the radioactive material can have simultaneously decayed and not decayed in the sealed environment, then it follows the cat too is both alive and dead until the box is opened.

The University of Nottingham's Sixty Symbols YouTube channel provides a more complete explanation. But with or without any further introduction, you can watch the off-kilter animation, above, which imagines the origins of the original experiment. It was created by Chavdar Yordanov for an animation show in London.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site early last year.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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