Science Can Now Break a Strand of Spaghetti Into Just Two Pieces

Also, you're not supposed to break spaghetti.

Can you break a single piece of uncooked spaghetti into just two fragments (while holding it by the ends)? The question has long bedeviled both Nobel laureates and flummoxed YouTubers. We tried, too.

Nope—four pieces.

While he was a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2016, Ronald Heisser got serious about this question. For his senior thesis, he found that there is indeed a way to do it, and learned something about how things fail in the process. To do it, he needed to construct a custom spaghetti bend-o-twister (our term of art), possibly based on a medieval torture device. A clamp grabs each end of a strand—one fixed, the other mobile. After a single spaghetto is locked in, the mobile piece inches toward the other end by means of a knob, sending the noodle arching gracefully upward. The apparatus—and this is the key—can also twist the noodle to a precise degree.

Heisser’s research built on an existing theory that explains why bent rods break this way (but doesn't show how you can change that behavior): A first break, in the center of the rod, sends a destructive, “bending wave” reverberating back down the split halves, which can cause them to fracture. But Heisser found that twisting spaghetti before bending it unleashes a counteracting “twist wave” that unravels the noodle into its resting position. Critically, the twist wave travels faster than the bending wave, so it can stop the residual fractures before they happen.

With great consistency, Heisser says, the spaghetto could produce a clean break when twisted by 270 degrees (with exceptions attributable to pasta manufacturing variation). Heisser’s thesis provided the basis for a study published yesterday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which involved filming spaghetti fractures at up to a million frames per second.

Heisser, now a Ph.D. student at Cornell University, finds in his results a lesson about the nature of failure itself. Breakages, fractures, failures, he says, are typically regarded as disorderly, runaway processes—out of our control. Thinking about the relationship between twists and bends, on the other hand, can help scientists and engineers plan for “how something breaks if it is going to break.”

But not spaghetti, actually, because you're not supposed to be breaking it anyway.