Lots of everyday phenomena puzzle most of us. How do radio waves magically transmit voices through the air? Where does bellybutton lint come from? Who buys the head cheese at the grocery store? But we don’t have time to waste contemplating mysteries like these, and besides, some physicist somewhere understands it all. Why bother?
Only that last part isn’t always true. We have been culturally imprinted with the idea that Scientists Understand Everything. Except they don’t. Take spaghetti, for example. If you bend an uncooked piece of spaghetti until it breaks, it will snap into not two pieces, as you might expect, but three or more. Why? This frivolous kitchen experiment was deeply puzzling to none other than Nobel-prizewinning physicist Richard Feynman. He never figured it out, but perhaps Feynman’s frustration justified in some small way the amount of effort a team in France has put into solving this puzzle once and for all.
I first saw this in the Economist, but I believe they demand a subscription before you can see their stuff. Here’s the official site in France: Breaking spaghetti. It’s loaded with movies, pictures, and simulated animations. Just goes to show, there’s magic everywhere. For those of you who don’t believe in magic, here’s the official word: “The multiple breaking of bent rods, like dry spaghetti pasta, can then be understood as a cascade of releases (loss of cohesion upon breakings) followed by stress increases leading to new cracks.”