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Food Science


Nouveau noodles and spiderweb soundscapes

by Sam Lemonick
May 10, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 17


New noodle noodled

Photograph of cascatelli noodle
Credit: Scott Gordon Bleicher
Chasing waterfalls: Podcaster Dan Pashman invented a new pasta shape called cascatelli.

Browse an Italian restaurant menu or grocery store shelves, and you’ll see a familiar stable of pasta shapes like linguine, penne, and rotini. Maybe you’ve tried some less common varieties, like the trendy bucatini. But if you’ve never heard of cascatelli, which roughly translates to “little waterfalls,” don’t feel bad. It’s a brand-new noodle, invented by Dan Pashman of the food podcast The Sporkful. Pashman chronicled the twists and turns (and tubes and ruffles) of the yearslong process of cascatelli’s conception in a recent series of episodes dubbed “Mission: ImPASTAble.”

You might imagine that the universe of possible pasta shapes is infinite. But Pashman tells Newscripts that there are limits. The mechanics of making pasta—pressing dough through holes in metal dies—impose certain constraints. How noodles are dried and packaged forces shape choices as well. And humans have their limits too. Pashman had initially envisioned a long shape, like fettuccine, but the prototypes proved a bit too hard to pick up with a fork and a bit too much as a mouthful. As the shorter noodles he settled on were extruded, they crashed into their neighbors in such a way to fortuitously create cascatelli’s characteristic J shape.

Pashman’s science background is limited to a high school Advanced Placement biology class, which he credits with teaching him about the ratio of surface area to volume, an important factor in pasta cooking time and sauce retention. Nevertheless, he tried to take a scientific approach to the project. He tasted dozens of pasta shapes and isolated variables to learn which were most important to him. He visited the Durum Wheat Quality and Pasta Processing Laboratory at North Dakota State University, where scientists are researching new wheat varieties for use in pastas. The lab also has a machine that measures the force required to bite through spaghetti.

Pashman partnered with midsize pasta maker Sfoglini to make and sell cascatelli. At publication, the pasta was sold out, but the company is taking orders for the next batch. And you can hear the whole story on Pashman’s podcast.


Itsy-bitsy spider remix

Spiders can build intricate webs, soar on silk parachutes, and leap the equivalent of the length of a school bus. But play music? With a little help, yes.

Photo illustration of a spider playing a harp.
Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Shutterstock
Arachnid audio: Scientists made mathematical models of spiderwebs into music to better understand them.

Materials scientist Markus J. Buehler of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studies how organisms use proteins to make materials like bone, hair, and spider silk. He tells Newscripts that in addition to the beauty we can see in a spider’s web, their threads contain intricate nanostructures that are beyond our perception. To bring those invisible biological structures to life, Buehler uses sound.

Buehler showed off some spiderweb sonification at the recent American Chemical Society Spring 2021 meeting. MIT PhD student Isabelle Su used lasers to image the web’s structure thousands of times, then transformed those images into a mathematical model of the web that assigns a vibration to each thread. Then the researchers can explore the fine structures of the web in sound, plucking each strand “like a little harp string,” Buehler says. The results have an eerie beauty. His collaborator, composer Evan Ziporyn of MIT, took the idea to its logical extent and performed live spiderweb playings.

The tones reveal how long each segment of the web is, what tension it’s under, what it connects to, and more. Buehler says our auditory system is finely attuned to patterns: “If someone plays a wrong note, you know it,” he says. This phenomenon can allow insights the eye can’t perceive. He hopes that understanding spiders’ webs might lead to robots that can build similarly impressive structures.

And although spiders might not know how to play music, they use their webs’ vibrations to sense prey and repair holes. One of Buehler’s next projects is determining if his group can communicate with spiders using those harp strings in their webs.

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