Feynman and Pauling Video Snippets

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The following video snippets were taken from Nova's excellent 1993 program "The Best Mind Since Einstein". To learn more about Feynman, go to www.feynman.com. To save these snippets to your hard drive, right-click you mouse button over the link and select "save target (or link) as ..."

Feynman's Interest in Spaghetti

In a 1993 Nova program (by film-maker Sykes) and the 1994 book "No Ordinary Genuis" (edited by Sykes) Daniel W. Hillis fondly recalls an evening with Feynman breaking spaghetti, unsuccessfully trying to discover why it breaks in three pieces.  Here is a video snippet of the interview:
Spaghetti Stumps The Chief. 150KB, 60 secs
The seemingly simple problem was succinctly posed by Hillis as "Why does spaghetti break in 3 pieces?"  Well, it doesn't always break in exactly 3 peices, but it happens often enough that many children and adults have probably wondered about it.  Such a simple observation defying explanation from a great physicist sparked interest from many people - especially Feynman fans.  At the bottom of this page you can see newsgroup posts from 1993 wondering about it in response to the Nova program.  An illucidation of the spaghetti solution was provided in 2005 by a January 2005 research paper followed by an August 2005 paper, both in Physical Review Letters.  This sparked media coverage, the best of which was in Science News.

A similar problem asking which way a sprinkler turns when run backwards in a tank of water was also presented without solution in his "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman" and in the popular Feynman biography "Genuis". The latter states John Wheeler said Feynman had absolutely convinced him it would turn one way on one day, then the other way the next day, and that he didn't know what Feynman would convince him of the next day.  Feynman conducted the experiment and found the solution, but he and Wheeler would never reveal the solution so that others could have fun pondering it.  It is often referred to as a Feynman Sprinkler.

Other Feynman Videos

Linus Pauling

Pauling wrote a letter to Feynman to try to get him to try vitamin C for his stomach cancer, right after the first surgery. Pauling's research indicated those with stomach cancer (although not necessarily Feynman's particular rare type) would live 4 times longer on 10 g a day. For several reasonable reasons, Feynman politely rejected Pauling's request but wrote that he would nevertheless give the research data over to the talented doctor Feynman trusted. vit c foundation     Courtesy of heelspurs.com

The Feynman Webring

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Benjamin J. Tilly   Dec 26 1993, 1:59 pm   
Newsgroups: sci.physics 
Subject: Spaghetti? 

There was a problem mentioned on the NOVA program about Feynman which 
is why spaghetti breaks into three pieces when you snap it. Feynman and 
a friend of his were not able to come up with a good answer despite 
several hours and a lot of broken spaghetti. Well I began thinking 
about it and I have no real idea what the answer is either, but I have 
noticed that if I bend it slowly then it breaks in two *unequal* pieces 
instead of three. So what I would guess is that it breaks in two 
unequal pieces and then the recoil of the longer piece snaps that in 
two. Or it could have something to do with the position of the hands 
when you break it. But I do not know. So would anyone out there like to 
take a highspeed camera and some spaghetti and run some quick 
experiments? Any other theories out there? 

Ben Tilly 

Matt Heavner   Dec 27 1993, 2:49 am     show options 

Newsgroups: sci.physics 
Subject: Re: Spaghetti? 

I also tried to do some spaghetti experiments after watching the 
Feynman special on Nova.  I was using the long spaghetti (twice the 
length of 'normal' spaghetti--or about 2/3 meter instead of 1/3 
meter).  When I held it at each end, it split into two pieces.  Then 
when I took one of those two pieces (nearly the same size) and broke 
it, it split into three pieces.  I could take some of the smaller 
pieces and break them--either into two or three pieces.  It seems that 
the length of the spaghetti is important...  I didn't get lots of data 
however, the sauce also had to be made.... 
Matt Heavner 

Nov 16, 1999, sci.physics.research

I would think about shockwaves being created at the first break up. I 
bet if one measures the process you'll find two peaks separated by a 
split of a second. And they might have opposite signs also. BTW: The 
equipment to use would be a camera, a flashlight and an acoustic 

Lorenz Borsche                  http://www.borsche.de 
Dr. Michael Albert wrote: 
> strands tend to break into three pieces instead of two, 
> with the central pieces being ejected with considerable 

If you bend a single spaghetti, there are two points where the 
curvature is maximal, so it will break at one of them, thus 
removing the tension from the other one. If you have a bundle, 
the ones broken e.g. at the right point are kept in place by the 
non-broken ones, so they still fell the tension at the left point 
and break there too. Those who break only at one point will act 
as springs and eject the central pieces of the doubly-broken ones. 

Charles Francis   Nov 18 1999, 3:00 am    

>If you bend a single spaghetti, there are two points where the 
>curvature is maximal, so it will break at one of them, thus 
>removing the tension from the other one. 

I thought this was not my experience, so I tested it, on six individual 
strands. In each case the spaghetti broke first at the point of maximum 
curvature, creating a whiplash effect in each of the pieces, which broke 
again at least once, ejecting the pieces with some speed. In no instance 
did I obtain less than four pieces, only twice did I obtain four pieces, 
and on one occaision there seemed to be seven pieces. 

The experiment may depend on who is holding the ends of the spaghetti, 
and also the brand. 

Charles Francis 

Well, now, this is interesting.  I always thought this odd-fracturing rule 
reflected some pretty deep topology.  I'll have to check my fallible 
memory and report back, though.  Meanwhile, someone please get a bunch of 
identical paper soda straws.  Stand one on end and press until it buckles. 
Repeat until you see a pattern. I think you should almost always fractures 
into three pieces in zig-zag fashion, never two or four, but sometimes 
five pieces.  Next, try the same thing with single sphagetti strands. If 
you are careful to press vertically, I'd guess you get three piece 
fracturing.  Experimentalists, to your lab benches!  :-) 

Chris Hillman