Found the solution to half a century of physics puzzles

Experiments and simulations show how dry spaghetti can be broken into two or more fragments by twisting and bending

For everyone who has ever broken dry spaghetti into a pot, it has been noticed that while you can easily do it, it quite often shatters in the middle, resulting in a multitude of smaller pieces. Now bend it until it breaks. How many fragments did you make?

On the other hand, if you snap the dry spaghetti in half, you will be left with uneven strands and dozens of tiny splinters flying around the kitchen. If not, you're in very good company.

The phenomenon has puzzled scientists for decades, but they always looked for a theoretical explanation for why the spaghetti noddle refuses to snap in two. They explained that when a strand of spaghetti is bent using even force from both ends, it will break near the center, where it is most curved. By twisting and bending, the stress placed on the object being broken is distributed - weakening the "snapback effect" and allowing the pasta to release energy while it unwinds, thus preventing more fractures.

You would think that scientists have more pressing issues on their mind than how spaghetti breaks, but apparently this issue has been a long-standing one.

The research was not aimed specifically at spaghetti, although pasta did become the prime example as the team tried to address "a well-known problem with direct implications for the fracture behavior of elongated brittle objects". Is it possible to break a stick of dry spaghetti into exactly two pieces? 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. To prevent bent spaghetti from splintering into a half dozen pieces, the researchers wrote, one end of the pasta first has to be twisted almost 360 degrees. "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". Their co-authors are Norbert Stoop, instructor of mathematics at MIT, and Emmanuel Villermaux of Université Aix Marseille.

The spaghetti challenge isn't a recent mystery.

"The secret is that you have to twist it a fair amount", graduate student Vishal Patil from MIT told Gizmodo. "And Ronald wanted to investigate more deeply". 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.


But is it really impossible to crack spaghetti in two?

They needed to twist the spaghetti at 270 degrees, before merging the two ends slowly together. The twist essentially weakens the snap-back effect discovered in 2006.

"Once it breaks, you still have a snap-back because the rod wants to be straight", Dunkel explains. The initial break releases a wave of energy that propels other sections of the object to fracture as well. Were you successful? Yes, you'll say, but are you sure? You're likely to have at least three pieces.

"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", added Dunkel. The spaghetti should straighten out and not break any further.

"Linguini is different because it's more like a ribbon", Dunkel says. "The way the model is constructed it applies to perfectly cylindrical rods".

Written by Jennifer Chu, guest contributor, MIT News.

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