Mathematicians solve old mystery about spaghetti breaking

16 Août, 2018, 20:40 | Auteur: Therese Cote

The spot where it breaks is the most curved portion of the rod.

If you've ever made a pasta dish at home, you're probably already aware that it's nearly impossible to break dry spaghetti into just two pieces.

Without fault, the dry spaghetti sticks split into many pieces when people try to break it.

If that confuses you, don't worry - you're in good company. This spaghetti conundrum has flummoxed scientists for decades. He tried to find out a theoretical explanation why it refused to break into just two pieces. He couldn't come up with a satisfying explanation, and the mystery remained unsolved until 2005 when physicists from France came up with a working theory. They discovered that when the stick gets bent from both ends evenly, it will crack near the center, where the curvature is the highest.

The crack triggers a "snap-back" effect and a bending wave or vibration, which are responsible for the additional cracks on a spaghetti piece. The theory was demonstrated, and as a reward for their trouble, the French physicists received an Ig Nobel Prize, a parody of the Nobel Prize, which celebrates unusual or trivial findings.

But a question remained: Could spaghetti ever be coerced to break in two? Nevertheless, they needed a strong twisting motion for this to happen. In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers report that if you also twist the spaghetti, this dampens the shock wave and reduces the chance of breaking into several pieces.

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However, researchers say, this could have far-reaching implications, going way beyond culinary curiosities.

"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", says co-author Jörn Dunkel, associate professor of physical applied mathematics at MIT. "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".

They found that by first twisting the spaghetti at nearly 360 degrees, then slowly bringing the two clamps together to bend it, the stick snapped exactly in two. To lend their carbo-rific trials complete precision, lead study author Ronald Heisser (now an engineering graduate student at Cornell University) built a special spaghetti-bending machine, complete with aluminum pincers that gripped each noodle on either end. They designed a device that can controllably bend and twist spaghetti ends, focusing on two types of spaghetti: Barilla No. 5 and Barilla No. 7, which have slightly different diameters.

After much pasta destruction, the researchers discovered that they were consistently able to break individual pieces of spaghetti into exactly two pieces only when the machine twisted the noodles at least 250 degrees, then slowly bent them up to the breaking point.

For a 10-inch-long spaghetti stick, scientists claim you'll need to twist the strand by 270 degrees and then bend it by bringing the extremities together at a speed of 3 millimetres per second to achieve a clean break. "And [Heisser] wanted to investigate more deeply". Putting all the hard work together, they finally solved this unusual puzzle - but there is one caveat.

Their study works on the assumption of cylindrical shapes - in other words, it only works for "classic" pasta.

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