A spaghetti mystery you might not have noticed is finally solved

14 Aug 2018

Image: ugurv/Shutterstock

Unbeknownst to most of us, a spaghetti mystery has plagued scientists for years, at least until now.

The next time you’re making spaghetti, hold one stick at both ends and bend it until it breaks.

If you are able to snap it in two, then you’re the mathematical equivalent of a magician.

For years, mathematicians were puzzled as to why spaghetti always breaks into three or more fragments. Famed physicist Richard Feynman once spent an entire evening trying to get two fragments of spaghetti.

It took until 2005 for a team of French physicists to finally find an answer.

As it turns out, when the stick is bent evenly from both ends, it will break near the most bendy point in the centre. This triggers a ‘snap back’ effect that travels through the stick, fracturing it in multiple pieces.

But is it physically possible to snap one stick of spaghetti in two? According to a newly published paper from a team from MIT, it is.

No more spaghetti, please

Using hundreds of spaghetti sticks from two different varieties, the team went about bending and twisting them with a specially built instrument.

After a lot of testing, it found that if a stick twisted past almost 360 degrees, then is slowly bent in half, it will eventually break in two.

“It will be interesting to see whether and how twist could similarly be used to control the fracture dynamics of 2D and 3D materials,” said the study’s co-author, Jörn Dunkel.

“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.”

Rather than it just being a fun thing for mathematicians to do, the findings could have important applications, such as enhancing the understanding of crack formation and how to control fractures in other rod-like materials such as multi-fibre structures and engineered nanotubes.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic