Has this ever happened to you? You want to cook some delicious spaghetti, so you break the pasta in half to fit in the pot, and wouldn't you know it, the noodles shatter into several small pieces each, landing on the floor and rolling under your stove to eventually grow mold and kill you in your sleep with toxic spores. It's a common occurrence, spaghetti mold revenge killings, but no more! Thanks to the power of science, you can now finally break your pasta without the mess. And no, this isn't the introduction to some weird late-night infomercial trying to sell you the Spaghetti-Splitter 3000, but a physics breakthrough that's been in the works for decades.
To seasoned chefs, the inconvenience of spaghetti splintering is solved by simply not breaking the pasta and letting the top half slowly get lowered into the boiling water like some sort of culinary James Bond deathtrap. But to physicists, the unusual pattern of fracturing has been a splinter in their paw for generations. The fascination started with none other than Richard Feynman, OG cool science genius (and a bit of a creep), who once spent a whole night carefully breaking spaghetti strands and wracking his brain over why he couldn't get fewer than three parts. Fast-forward to 2006, when two French scientists used their noodles to discover this shattering is due to a "snap-back" effect, whereby the initial break of the spaghetti causes a vibration that breaks it yet again while it snaps back into its natural straight state. For their valiant efforts in the field of culino-physics, they were awarded an Ig Nobel Prize.
What was lacking in their research was a solution to this age-old problem. But now, two MIT graduates have figured it out. Published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, their paper explains how to successfully break spaghetti in clean halves every single time. Since 2015, they've been using a special device to snap countless spaghetti strands. Eventually they discovered that if the device's clamps rotated the strand beyond 270 degrees, the spaghetti would experience a clean break. This is because the corkscrewed pasta will create a "twist wave" when breaking, and because this twist wave is faster than the previously discovered snap-back wave, it dissipates that energy, causing the strands' halves to remain intact. So all you have to do is firmly grip your hard noodle, twist it hard, and then gently pull down to achieve a satisfactory burst. We're kind of amazed it took college students this long to figure it out.
But as silly as spaghetti twisting sounds, its discovery could have a major effect on our understanding of fracture cascades, helping to "control fractures in other rod-like materials such as multifiber structures, engineered nanotubes, or even microtubules in cells." Though the scientists do add that their specific technique only works on hard pasta-like cylinders, so the only practical applications, for now, are for chefs wanting to cleanly snap spaghetti (and maybe for evil henchmen wanting to cleanly snap spines).
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