Editor’s Note: Don Lincoln is a senior scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. He is the author of “The Large Hadron Collider: The Extraordinary Story of the Higgs Boson and Other Stuff That Will Blow Your Mind” and produces a series of science education videos. Follow him on Facebook. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Richard P. Feynman was one of the brightest minds of the 20th century. He was a key player in inventing quantum electrodynamics, which describes the behavior of light and matter. He invented what are now called Feynman diagrams, hieroglyphic scribbles that make it easier for lesser minds to perform calculations using his theories. He even played a pivotal role in digging out the core cause of the destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
Feynman was a brilliant mind, a legendary trickster, a bon vivant.
There is, however, one physics mystery that he never solved: The nature of how a spaghetti noodle breaks – or whether it was even possible to break a stick cleanly in two.
In the book “No Ordinary Genius,” Feynman’s friend, Daniel Hillis, tells a story of a night when he and Feynman tried to figure it out. “Why is this true – why does it break into three pieces? We spent the next two hours coming up with crazy theories,” Hillis recalls.
Eventually, Feynman gave up. He died not knowing the physics that govern the most beloved pasta. But last week, a group of scientists discovered a new piece of the answer. Their findings were published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and announced in an MIT news release.
If you’re a huge pasta fan like I am, you understand the problem. Take a stick of spaghetti, hold it by the ends and bend it until it breaks. Naively, you’d assume that the stick would break into two pieces; but it never does. The stick will break into three pieces or, more often, with little spaghetti bits flying everywhere.
Now, the recent discovery isn’t about why spaghetti ordinarily doesn’t break into only two pieces. In fact, scientists have understood that for over a decade: When a long and thin object like a stick of spaghetti is broken by bending it in two, the energy of the initial fracture propagates back through the stick, causing the stick to fracture in multiple places.
This results in the frustrating, time-honored practice of picking out the tiny spaghetti fragments from the crevices of the stovetop. The scientists who explained this annoying feature of spaghetti, Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch, shared the 2006 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics (not to be confused with the Nobel Prize), awarded for research that first “makes people laugh, and then think.”
Until this month, however, it was unknown if it is even possible to break a stick of spaghetti into only two pieces. Spoiler: It is. And researchers Ronald Heisser of Cornell University and Vishal Patil of MIT and their co-authors figured it out. All it takes is a twist.
If you take a stick of spaghetti and twist it before you bend it, you can break the stick into two. When the initial fracture occurs, energy is released as occurs in a normal break, but rather than propagating through the stick and breaking it, the energy goes into relieving the tension induced by the twist.
Heisser and Patil built an apparatus that allowed them to precisely twist and bend dry noodles and test their calculations.
This work, while whimsical, has potential applications beyond making dinner. The calculations apply more generally to determining the crack formation of other rod-like structures, like poles used in pole vaulting and other engineering situations.
While the published calculation was specifically for cylindrical rods, it is clear that the approach can be applied to other generalized geometries that aren’t cylindrical, like perhaps helicopter or wind turbine blades.
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Feynman, who died in 1988, would have been delighted to know that the solution to this problem has been found. While his most impactful research was at the edge of human knowledge, he truly loved physics and spent much of his time playing with conundra like the broken spaghetti problem.
As he said in his best-selling book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!,” his reasoning behind picking the problems he sought to solve “didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with.”
And what is more fun than playing with your food?