Democracy Dies in Darkness

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This spaghetti-breaking problem stumped physicist Richard Feynman. Two MIT students have now solved it.

August 16, 2018 at 6:57 AM

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Two MIT students solved how to break spaghetti in two parts, rather than three. Here are some other bizarre problems scientists have researched. (Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

A quick Google search of the current biggest mysteries in physics turns up a daunting list of questions: What exactly is dark matter? Why does time only move in one direction? What happens inside a black hole?

But sometimes, as American physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman discovered decades ago, equally vexing conundrums can be found in everyday objects, say dry spaghetti noodles.

One night, while preparing one of his favorite meals with supercomputer pioneer Danny Hillis, Feynman noticed something strange about spaghetti. If a dry noodle is taken and broken in half, it will almost always break into three or more pieces, tiny bits spraying in every direction.

“Why is this true — why does it break into three pieces? We spent the next two hours coming up with crazy theories,” Hillis recalled in a biography about Feynman. But, after two hours, all the duo had were their theories — “no real good” ones, Hillis said — and a mess of broken spaghetti all over Feynman’s kitchen.

Decades later, in the spring of 2015, two graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found themselves in an oddly similar situation — only Ronald Heisser and his friend Edgar Gridello had been breaking spaghetti for much longer than two hours.

“For maybe a month, a month and a half, we would just break spaghetti after class, just cover the floor in broken pieces of spaghetti,” Heisser, now a PhD student at Cornell University, told The Washington Post on Thursday. He and Gridello had taken on Feynman’s spaghetti enigma as a final project for a class.

“I thought it would be cool to try and complete something that a famous physicist began,” Heisser said.

But, Heisser and Gridello weren’t trying to figure out why dry spaghetti noodles don’t break in half cleanly. That mystery had already been cracked in 2005 by French scientists Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch, whose research earned them an Ig Nobel Prize, a parody award intended to “celebrate the unusual” and “honor the imaginative.”

The MIT students wanted to tackle a bigger question: Is it even possible to break a spaghetti noodle into two halves? Can it be done and if so, how?

Turns out the answer is yes, with a twist. Literally.

The device used by Heisser and Patil. (Courtesy of the researchers/MIT/)

Using mathematical modeling, a one-of-a-kind spaghetti breaking contraption and a high-tech camera that can capture up to a million frames per second, Heisser, with the help of fellow MIT graduate student Vishal Patil, took what began as a class project and turned it into the latest revelation in Feynman’s famed puzzle.

Heisser and Patil figured out that all you need to do to halve spaghetti is bend and twist, and they published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The twist is crucial, Patil told The Post. He created a mathematical model to explain the theory drawing on the research done by Audoly and Neukirch.

A decade ago, the French scientists discovered that when a long thin object is broken by applying pressure evenly to both ends, the force creates a “snapback effect” — a wave of energy released from the initial break that causes other sections of the object to also fracture.

“In our study, we go a bit further and show that actually you can control this fracture cascade and get two pieces if you twist it,” Patil said. “You can control the fracture process and then you get two pieces instead of many, many pieces.”

By twisting and bending, the stress placed on the object being broken is distributed, Patil said. The “snapback effect” is weakened by the twist and the pasta unwinding itself releases energy, preventing more fractures, according to a news release from MIT.

As expected, testing the theory required breaking spaghetti — a lot of it.

Heisser said he thinks the number is north of 500. Patil recalled hours in the lab.

“We’d just be in lab breaking spaghetti all the time,” he said.

Luckily, instead of relying on bare hands and manual strength, Heisser designed a special device.

“The way our contraption worked is you had sort of a clamp where you clamp the ends of spaghetti,” Patil said. “You have to clamp it hard enough, so you could twist the spaghetti a lot, but softly enough that it wouldn’t just break at the ends.”

As one clamp rotates to twist the spaghetti, the other clamp slides toward it to bring the two ends together, bending it.

Finally, after several years of research, Heisser and Patil arrived at a conclusion: A dry noodle needed to be twisted nearly 360 degrees and bent slowly to achieve a clean break, the MIT release said.

“It was awesome,” Heisser said, recalling the moment the spaghetti broke in half. “This is my first research project. I felt like I was doing science.” Even if the topic was “a little silly,” he added.

Although breaking spaghetti may seem frivolous, Patil said the research may be applicable to studying how fracturing, usually a “chaotic and random” process, can be controlled for a wide variety of materials. Patil added that the theory he and Heisser developed can also be applied to any brittle rodlike object, for example, a pole used for pole vaulting.

“Just understanding these complex fracture systems would be interesting going forward as well,” he said. “There’s still a lot to be discovered about fracture control, and this is an example of fracture control.”

In fact, there’s even still more work to be done with pasta. Patil said he’s often asked what pasta type will be tested next or if he and Heisser plan to study linguine, which is flatter and more ribbonlike compared with spaghetti.

But, Patil said he won’t be participating in any pasta-related research for the time being.

“I have spent way too much time with spaghetti,” he said with a laugh.

Heisser, on the other hand, is a different story.

Although he’s not ready to start on another project, he said he hasn’t grown tired of breaking spaghetti.

“I still do it, just on occasion” he said. “I enjoy it.”


Allyson Chiu is a reporter with The Washington Post's Morning Mix team. She has previously contributed to the South China Morning Post and the Pacific Daily News.

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