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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

The Draw­ings & Paint­ings of Richard Feyn­man: Art Express­es a Dra­mat­ic “Feel­ing of Awe”

Learn How Richard Feyn­man Cracked the Safes with Atom­ic Secrets at Los Alam­os

Richard Feyn­man on the Bon­gos

What Ignit­ed Richard Feynman’s Love of Sci­ence Revealed in an Ani­mat­ed Video

A Free Course from MIT Teach­es You How to Speak Ital­ian & Cook Ital­ian Food All at Once

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.

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