MIT mathematicians have solved an age-old spaghetti mystery

Spaghetti Snapper

And if you are attempting to break a single piece of spaghetti in half and want two pieces, forget it, since the single piece will nearly always break into at least three pieces.

"A well-known problem with direct implications for the fracture behavior of elongated brittle objects, such as vaulting poles or long fibers, goes back to the famous physicist Richard Feynman who observed that dry spaghetti nearly always breaks into three or more pieces when exposed to large bending stresses", the researchers write. Why is it that, when you try to snap a single piece of uncooked spaghetti in half, you nearly always end up with three or more pieces of pasta clattering across your counter?

In a twisted noodle, however, much of that snap-back wave is transferred into a "twist wave" propagated through the noodle's uncoiling, the MIT researchers wrote. The findings could be used to control fractures and increase toughness in rod-like materials such as multifiber structures, engineered nanotubes, or even microtubules in cells.

The team found that if a stick is twisted past a certain critical degree, then slowly bent in half, it will, against all odds, break in two.

For a 10-inch long pasta stick to split perfectly, people would have to twist the strand in a 270-degree angle and bend it at the speed of 3 millimeters per second.

If you try it for yourself, you'll see - it's not going to break cleanly into two pieces. While the easiest solution would be to break the spaghetti in half, it's never a straightforward process, as an attempt to break it in even halves resulted in uneven, multiple broken bits. "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".

Dunkel told MIT News that the students tried a manual test and figured out you have to twist - but it requires a really strong twist. "And Ronald wanted to investigate more deeply".

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In parallel, Patil began to develop a mathematical model to explain how twisting can snap a stick in two. He, however, adapted their theory to include the element of twisting.

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.

"Once it breaks, you still have a snap-back because the rod wants to be straight", Dunkel explains.

'But it also doesn't want to be twisted, ' said Dr Dunkel.

An explanation for this phenomenon was proposed in a 2005 paper, which put it down to a burst of flexural waves being created during the sudden "relaxation of the curvature" of the spaghetti strand. Consider that, when an untwisted rod first fractures, each half catapults backward in a burst of kinetic energy. 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. The MIT scientists say their new work could be used to better understand how cracks form and spread in similarly structured materials and brittle structures-bridge spans, for instance, or human bones. As for other pasta types?

This article was republished courtesy of the World Economic Forum.

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