Did you know that a single strand of spaghetti is referred to as a spaghetto? That’s not all you didn’t know: if you grab a spaghetto, hold it at both ends, and snap it in two, you will almost certainly end up with three fragments, not two halves, that will be uneven in length. Go on, give it a go right now – I’ll wait.
As it turns out, this conundrum, which we’ll refer to as the Spaghetto Problem (SP), has never been explained. It’s intriguing enough in itself, but as with plenty of simple things like this, understanding why it never breaks into two halves has implications for mathematics and physics. It was even pondered over by renowned physicist Richard Feynman, who died not coming up with an adequate solution.
As spotted by ScienceAlert, several 2005 papers dedicated to the subject found out why such spaghetto bending ends up making more than just two fragments. Post-break, the spaghetti strands snap back, which sends violent ripples throughout the strands, shattering them into multiple pieces.
So that’s one part of SP done and dusted. But why, the world screamed in unison, does it never just cleanly break? Is it at all possible?
Enter an international team of researchers, whose new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has perhaps officially solved the SP once and for all – and which has potentially earned them an Ig Noble prize nomination. As pointed out in an accompanying press release, it turns out those 2005 papers already netted the French researchers behind them one of those coveted awards a year later.
So how did these newcomers do it? Turns out that, in order to ascend to the status of Spaghetti Sherlocks, they needed to build a bespoke spaghetto-twisting device. As you can see here, it’s a rather specific design, one that bends and twists and distorts single spaghetto strands in a plethora of ways.
The scientists – from MIT, Cornell University and the University of Aix in Marseille – found out from a series of more basic experiments that twisting the spaghetto very strongly resulted in a clear, two-strand break.
Their device, which was being recorded by a very high-speed camera, accomplished the same feat when the strand was first twisted nearly 360°, before the clamps moved together to break it.
A mathematical model, developed using the work of those venerated French scientists, elucidated matters further: that snap-back effect is dampened by the rapid twist, which dominates the energy release as it unwinds. This prevents further snaps.
The upside to solving SP is that it could have applications in a wide range of mechanical systems relating to stress, strain, and failure. At present, though, it’s not clear how other pasta types are affected.