As a writer who tries to be “surreptitiously educational”, one of the tenets of my fictional works is that the science in them is at least somewhat realistic to how things work in the real world. Granted, they are still works of fiction, but I want there to be just enough of a scientific reality to them that my readers’ interest would be piqued enough that they might learn these scientific concepts are at play in our universe. Consequently, I don’t mind using Wikipedia as one of my sole sources for research.

One of the problems with using Wikipedia for my writing research is the tangential research that ends up being added to the singular topic I wanted to learn about. This, in turn, leads to me wanting to include more and more interesting scientific concepts in my writing. In my first set of books, The Fluxion Trilogy, I tried to cram too many references into each one of them, a lesson I have learned and am now applying to future novels. Still, if I can learn something that could support a scientific concept in my writing, I’ll click that “See Also” link to sate my curiosity. Then again, sometimes a linked phrase will make me raise my eyebrows in confusion.

Case in point: Nuclear Pasta. First, let me give you the background that led me to this topic. In researching potential interstellar propulsion systems for my sci-fi reimagining of the Arthurian Legend (of which I am entitling the series The Matter of Space), I dove into research of neutron stars. My thought was that, if these stars could be “captured” and used to pull spacecraft toward their destination (instead of push them forward), they might provide an interesting and semi-realistic method for one of science’s biggest challenges. At this point in my research, I noticed a link to something called “Nuclear Pasta” and I wondered to myself, “I wonder what that is?” As I began to read, I almost laughed out loud at the explanation of what Nuclear Pasta really is. It’s certainly not some radioactive ravioli, that’s for sure. Here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia article (the good stuff starts around the end of the first paragraph noted below):

Nuclear pasta phases are theorized to exist in the inner crust of neutron stars, forming a transition region between the conventional matter at the surface, and the ultradense matter at the core. Towards the top of this transition region, the pressure is great enough that conventional nuclei will be condensed into much more massive semi-spherical collections. These formations would be unstable outside the star, due to their high neutron content and size, which can vary between tens and hundreds of nucleons. This semispherical phase is known as the gnocchi phase.

When the gnocchi phase is compressed, as would be expected in deeper layers of the crust, the electric repulsion of the protons in the gnocchi is not fully sufficient to support the existence of the individual spheres, and they are crushed into long rods, which, depending on their length, can contain many thousands of nucleons. Immersed in a neutron liquid, these rods are known as the spaghetti phase. Further compression causes the spaghetti phase rods to fuse, and form sheets of nuclear matter. This is called the lasagna phase. Further compression of the lasagna phase yields the uniform nuclear matter of the outer core with intermittent holes of neutron (and possibly proton) liquid. Progressing deeper into the inner crust, those holes in the nuclear pasta change from being cylindrical, dubbed by some the bucatini phase or antispaghetti phase, into scattered spherical holes, which can be called the Swiss cheese phase. The nuclei disappear at the crust-core interface, transitioning into the liquid core of the star. For a typical neutron star of 1.4 solar masses (M☉) and 12 km radius, the nuclear pasta layer in the crust can be about 100 m thick and have a mass of about 0.01 M☉. In terms of mass, this is a significant portion of the crust of a neutron star.

Scientists have often been accused of not creating very unique or interesting names for their discoveries. Nuclear Pasta definitely doesn’t fall into this category. If I were to guess, Nuclear Pasta came about late one night as a bunch of astrophysicists were researching formations in the crusts of neutron stars. They had all probably been working all day on this research and were now hungry for some dinner, which had come and gone hours before. One of the astrophysicists made the joke that, since they were studying the crusts of neutron stars, they should get some stuffed-crust pizza. At the mention of food, and semi-Italian food at that, every scientist’s mind immediately connected to their stomach. It was at this point when the conversation started to get weird.

Pointing at one of the drawings of a neutron star crust formation, one of the scientists probably started seeing gnocchi. Another saw spaghetti in the next phase. Still another saw lasagna in the next phase, and so on. The fact that these names stuck at all merely shows at how easily this obscure concept can be simply understood through something as common as food.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to see if I can get people to start calling canned, microwavable pasta “Radioactive Ravioli”.

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