ignoble noodling

SwamijenlucWe have been diligently studying our calculus, truly we have, and a post is in the works on the derivative and integral, respectively. But then I got distracted by last night’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, and the evening’s theme of "inertia" — particularly the heartwarming mini-opera, Inertia Makes the World Go Around — inspired Jen-Luc Piquant to emulate the operatic sister who stays at rest and take some time off to contemplate the Eternal Now. Or something. Regardless, she’s been AWOL on some Higher Plane ever since. And that’s too bad, because she’s missing all the entertaining blog-buzz about this year’s crop of Ig Nobel winners.

There were some particularly colorful recipients this year. Much has been made of the Prize in Medicine for demonstrating that "digital rectal massage" can cure hiccups. I predict this remedy will make huge leaps in popularity to challenge the other leading candidates for curing the hiccups (things like drinking a glass of water really fast, holding one’s breath, etc.). I was intrigued by the California-based ornithologists who studied why woodpeckers don’t get headaches. And a bit skeptical: c’mon, all that pecking day in and day out, you’re telling me a woodpecker doesn’t occasionally require some extra-strength Excedrin? As a writer, I appreciated Daniel Oppenheimer’s (Princeton University) exploration of why it’s problematic when writers use long words needlessly — something journalism students have known for decades, encapsulated in the motto, "Eschew the Obfuscation." (I blame Jen-Luc for my own indulgences in this area; she loves those big showy words.)

The investigation into why people dislike the sound of fingernails on chalk is a nice example of everyday science, while group photographers everywhere could benefit from the work of Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes (Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization). They made a mathematical analysis of how many photos must be taken to ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed in a paper entitled, "Blink-Free Photos Guaranteed." As a person with sensitive eyes who tends to blink during flash photographs, this is good to know. But I’ll assume the number of photos depends in part on how many people are posing for the picture — you know, more variables.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that my favorite honorees were the recipients of the Ig Nobel Prize in Physics, Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch of the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie, in Paris, France. They were honored for their investigation into the physics of pasta, specifically, the reasons why, when one tries to bend dry spaghetti, it often breaks not in half, but into more than two pieces — usually it shatters into three or more fragments of unequal lengths. (Which is precisely why, when I cook long strands of pasta, I don’t even try to break the dry pasta.) Not only did this paper appear in Physical Review Letters, but there’s a nifty online video here. Spaghetti_1

Thanks to my pal James Riordon, who writes the new Physics Buzz blog, I learned that the physics of spaghetti has long intrigued physicists, most notably Richard Feynman, who had an affinity for weird little everyday phenomena. For instance, there’s the infamous episode with the spinning plate, when he was a young physicist at Cornell just after the conclusion of the Manhattan Project. One day a student in the cafeteria tossed a plate in air, decorated with the university’s signature red medallion seal, and as the plate went up, Feynman noticed a distinct wobble as it spun. He calculated the exact ratio between the two and found that angling the plate very slightly causes it to wobble twice as fast as its spin rate. There was nothing especially useful about Feynman’s analysis; he was just curious, and did it for fun. And it led to a period of renewed creativity on his Nobel-Prize winning research into quantum electrodynamics.

Similarly, Feynman also became intrigued by the "breakage question" in spaghetti one night over dinner with supercomputer specialist W. Daniel Hillis. The anecdote appears in Christopher Sykes’ No Ordinary Genius, in which Hillis recalls, "We ended up, at the end of a couple of hours, with broken spaghetti all over the kitchen and no real good theory about why spaghetti breaks in three."

So spaghetti’s secrets eluded Feynman, who died in 1988; it also eluded another Nobel Laureate, Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, who told French TV hat he considered the "spaghetti mystery" to be "one of the very simple, yet unsolved problems of science." Enter Audoly and Neukirch. They experimented with dry spaghetti of varying thicknesses, clamping them at one end before bending the strand to breaking point (see photos at right).

They found that bending the strand "increases the curvature," which produces a sort of shock wave that travels along the length of the pasta. When that curvature exceeds a critical limit, the first break in the strand will occur. This breakage causes other shock waves that travel along the two newly formed pieces of the spaghetti, with the same effects, thereby resulting in a cascade of cracks. Nor are they the only scientists undertaking similar studies. Mathematician Andrew Belmonte (Pennsylvania State University) became intrigued, too, once spending an evening breaking spaghetti strands over his kitchen sink, just like Feynman. "I had always been puzzled by that small piece which flies out of the center," he confessed to Science News last year. Neukirch explained the fascination thusly: "This is really the kind of simple question that you can’t help thinking about over and over until you find the answer."

That kind of insatiable curiosity about how the world words is what makes scientists so, well, cool. But why should the average person on the street care (apart from hardcore cooks, of course)? Well, such studies can improve our understanding of why any long brittle structure fails — things like bridge spans, auto parts, or what circumstances might produce multiple fractures in human bones. It’s an area of study known as fragmentation, a phenomenon that can be seen at the subatomic scale in particle collisions, the smashing of windows, and bomb detonation — and, of course, dry spaghetti.

We can tell you one person who definitely cares about anything pertaining to the physics of pasta: Bobby Henderson, better known as the founder and chief prophet of the famed Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who has a degree in physics. Sure, there may be some internal bickering among Henderson’s growing congregration about whether the FSM is made of spaghetti or linguine — doctrinal differences arise in all organized religions — but the questions of breakage should be of tantamount interest to all who have been Touched By His Noodly Appendage.

8 thoughts on “ignoble noodling”

  1. As a patriotic (and pedantic) ‘Strayan, I must point out that it’s actually the Commonwealth Scientific and *Industrial* Research Organization (CSIRO). Though I see the Ignobel site was the source of the error.

  2. I snap spaghetti cleanly in half by holding my hands together at the center of the pasta bundle, then breaking it. I guess the grip of my hands damp out any shockwaves in the pasta sticks.

  3. >I snap spaghetti cleanly in half by holding my hands together at the center of the >pasta bundle, then breaking it.
    Even better is to break it in the box. The box just crinkles up (rigid plane crinkling is also a active area of research) and catches all the little errant pieces. Thinking she’d be impressed, I went to show one of my former Italian colleagues this and she just about had a heart attack.
    – “What, WHAT are you doing?!!”, she sputtered.
    – “What’s wrong? The box won’t get in the water.”
    – “Why are you breaking it at all? You’ve ruined it! Now what will we eat?!”

  4. I’m with the Italian colleague on this one: the secret to great noodles (whether the Italian or Asian varieties) is NOT to break them in half, or thirds, or a bunch of tiny shattered bits. It just ruins the whole dining experience…

  5. I feel so sad I didn’t have the chance to attend the Ig Nobels this year. After all the trouble I went through to live in Boston again, I miss my first great opportunity for spectacle and revelry. 🙁
    Well, there’s always the hope that I’ll win the physics prize myself next year and get not just a chance to attend, but the seat of (dis)honor. And at least I learned a valuable lesson about how to make noodles. See, **everything** is an opportunity for learning if you just stay alert! (I have a sneaky feeling that my last words will be, “Okay class, now watch carefully. . . .”)
    Once again, we see that Feynman’s name is a valuable commodity, and not just to the Caltech bookstore (where they have a Feynman section larger than the Sexuality shelf at any Barnes & Borders-A-Million). Hey, did you know that Feynman said “billions and billions” long before Carl Sagan ever did — or rather, before Johnny Carson said it while doing his Carl Sagan impersonation? It’s true. I noticed this while watching the Messenger Lectures, which Feynman delivered at Cornell in 1964; they screen these each January at MIT, and various university libraries probably have copies (I can’t find them online).
    In the fifth lecture, Feynman discusses the reversibility of physical laws, the idea that at a basic level, physical interactions look equally valid when seen going forward and going in reverse. Record a movie, conceptually speaking, of two atoms colliding. The collision obeys several principles: momentum is conserved, total energy is conserved and so forth. Now, run the movie through the projector backwards and check the energy and momentum. Lo, the collision when seen in reverse obeys the same natural laws. This is not like our everyday experience, in which wind-up toys run down and people grow old, where a direction of time seems very well defined.
    Exploring this question, Feynman raises the point that any familiar object is made of a staggeringly large number of fundamental pieces. A box full of gas contains “billions and billions” of gas atoms.
    I checked in **The Character of Physical Law**, the book made from these Messenger Lectures, and sure enough, “billions and billions” appears just where it should in chapter 5.
    In other news, the discussion over **New Scientist** magazine and its editorial policies which I brought up here a while ago has had some repercussions:
    http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/category/2006/10/new_scientist_reacts.html
    Down a ways on that page, J. Baez writes,
    “Having never run a magazine, my concrete suggestions would probably be naive. I suspect New Scientist is doing a pretty good job of what it’s aiming to do. And I suspect that Jennifer Ouellette is right: their dalliance with crackpots is not a matter of some occasional mistakes, but a deliberate editorial policy – an attempt to broaden their readership.”
    Be careful what you say: you might get referenced later!

  6. I was there! It was really great (sorry Blake).
    My favorite was the enforcer of the 2 minute time limit for prize winners, a.k.a. ‘Miss Cutesy-Poo’. She was an adorable 5 year old who would head to the podium after the alotted time was up and repeatedly say “Please stop, I’m bored!” until the speaker was unable to take it anymore.
    That and I got to throw a paper plane at a Nobel Laureate.

  7. Philosophia Naturalis Part Deux

    We begin with the usual Intro: Nature and Natures funny little quirks were hidden by the Dark Internet Chatter. And no one said switch off that da** computer and start reading a good book.So, let Newton be wherever he chose …

  8. Not to spoil the fun, but the picture you display is not from Audoly and Neukirch, but rather from the another pasta-breaking experiment (curious affliction, that) that you refer to by Gladden et al. On the other hand, “your” picture is cooler than the bending one. Maybe sometimes accuracy should give way for aesthetics.

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