Not all science awards are staid: Every year, the Improbable Research group from Harvard
University hosts the Ig Nobel Prize. While this is a play on the Nobel Prize and the word
"ignoble," meaning not honorable in character or purpose, nominees have nothing to be ashamed of. The aim of the Ig Nobel prize is to honour achievements that
"make people laugh," and then think, "to celebrate the use of
imagination in science."
Once an egg is cooked, that's it. There's no restoring it to
its unboiled state, at least not perfectly.
There are, however, ways to pull
apart the proteins that get tangled in the boiling process, allowing them to
refold into a liquid state. Earlier this year, an international team of researchers revealed their method for doing so.
Half of this battle is using an organic compound called
urea, which dissolves the proteins. The other half, for which professor Colin
Raston from Flinders University and an international team were awarded the Ig
Nobel Chemistry Prize, is using a high-speed fluid vortex machine, which forces the amino acids back into
their untangled state by means of shear stress.
This isn't just for fun. The process is a means whereby
researchers can reclaim denatured proteins in the lab, which would allow, for example,
cancer medications to be manufactured much more cheaply. You can read the full paper here.
A bigger bladder will take longer to empty, right? Apparently
not! According to a team of researchers from the Georgia Institute of
Technology, all mammals take roughly the same amount of time to pee: an average
of 21 seconds, with a standard deviation of 13 seconds. The team has called
this the "Law of Urination."
"This feat is made possible by larger animals having
longer urethras, thus higher gravitational force and flow speed," the paper's abstract reads.
"Smaller mammals are challenged during urination due to high viscous and
surface tension forces that limit their urine to single drops. Our findings
reveal the urethra constitutes as a flow enhancing device, enabling the urinary
system to be scaled up without compromising its function."
Why is this information valuable? Well, it could
help in diagnosing urinary problems. It could also be used to design scalable hydrodynamic
systems inspired by nature.
Linguistic differences are fascinating, but linguistic
similarities can be even more so. The word "Huh?", used as
a means of indicating that the listener has not understood a speaker, is universal,
found in languages around the world in almost identical form.
Moreover, it's not an instinctive utterance, as explained in a paper lead authored by Mark Dingemanse of the Max Planck Institute for
Psycholinguistics in The Netherlands. The paper makes the case for Huh's
position as a word. It has to be learned from others.
While the word
is universal, the reason why is still unclear.
Taking risks can pay off, but not everyone is comfortable
doing so. Among business leaders, it can be a desirable trait, but where does
it come from?
A team of researchers from around the globe -- Gennaro Bernile of
Singapore Management University, Vineet Bhagwat of the University of Oregon and
P Raghavendra Rau of the University of Cambridge -- draw a direct line between
risk-taking management and disasters in childhood.
According to the paper, CEOs who witness fatal disaster situations in childhood behave in different ways, depending on how the disaster affected
them personally. Those who saw no significant negative personal consequences
take more risks, whereas CEOs who did experience
negative personal consequences tend to play things more safely.
"These patterns manifest across various corporate
policies including financial leverage, cash holdings, and acquisition
activity," the abstract reads. "Ultimately, the link between CEOs'
disaster experience and corporate policies has real economic consequences on
firm riskiness and cost of capital."
How do you stop police officers from taking cash bribes? By bribing
them not to, apparently. This year's Ig Nobel Economics Prize goes to the
Bangkok Metropolitan Police, for its short-lived anti-bribe incentive program. A bonus would be given to officers who arrested traffic violators who offered
The other team, led by Natália Kamodyová of Comenius
University in Bratislava, Slovakia, found that, for a short window after
kissing, male DNA can be found in female saliva samples (and presumably vice versa) and can be isolated after prompt
collection. This could be used in forensic DNA testing.
Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif, aka Moulay Ismail the
Bloodthirsty, ruled Morocco as emperor from 1672 to 1727. Legend has it that,
during the latter half of his reign, from 1697 to 1727 (the year of his death
at the age of 80), he fathered 888 children.
We will likely never know the truth of this claim, but we do
know that it is, in fact, mathematically possible, thanks to the efforts of Elisabeth Oberzaucher and Karl Grammer of the University
of Vienna in Austria. The pair ran mathematical simulations to determine
whether, with 500 concubines and four wives, Moulay Ismail could have conceived
the maximum number of children he is said to have sired, some 1,171, including
Taking ovulation cycles and fertility into account, it is
possible that Moulay Ismail could have sired that many children, with a maximum
of 2.3 copulations per day over the 32-year period, and, moreover, would only
have needed a harem of 65 to 110 women to have done so.
When it comes to studying theropod movement, birds are the
best living creatures to act as a stand-in. That said, they're not perfect. They're a lot smaller, their centre of gravity is positioned differently, and
they move their legs differently compared to how scientists suppose dinosaurs move. To
solve this problem, a team of researchers from the University of Chile and the
University of Illinois found a novel solution: attaching a plunger-like tail to a chicken's butt.
This shifts the chicken's centre of gravity back farther on
its body, which in turn shifts limb posture and gait closer towards the inferred
limb posture and gait of bipedal theropod dinosaurs.
"Chickens raised wearing artificial tails, and
consequently with more posteriorly located centre of mass, showed a more
vertical orientation of the femur during standing and increased femoral
displacement during locomotion," the paper's abstract reads. "Our results support the hypothesis that gradual
changes in the location of the centre of mass resulted in more crouched
hindlimb postures and a shift from hip-driven to knee-driven limb movements
through theropod evolution."
Diagnostic Medicine Prize: Appendicitis hits the road
For those who have experienced appendicitis, the idea of
travelling over a speed bump while in its throes undoubtedly sounds very
unappealing. And for good reason: as determined by a team of researchers from
the University of Oxford and Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the UK, patients with
acute appendicitis experience an increase in pain when going over one.
The research included 64 participants, 34 of whom had a confirmed diagnosis of
appendicitis. Of these 34 appendicitis sufferers, 33 reported an increase in pain
while travelling over a speed bump. This could, the team said, be used as a tool
for identifying the condition in telephone assessments.
Physiology and Entomology Prize: Where does it sting?
If you were going to get stung by a bee, you'd probably
prefer to get stung, say, on the back of your hand rather than inside your
nose. Where would it hurt the most? Well, that's probably going to be
subjective, but we know where it would hurt Michael L. Smith of Cornell
University the most.
Following the research of Justin O. Schmidt, an entomologist
who ranked the relative pain of 78 species of insect stings, using a honey bee as a
base reference, Smith allowed himself to be stung by a honey bee in 25
different locations on his body, ranking them from the least to the most painful. The three least painful places
were the top of his head, the tip of his middle toe and his upper arm. The three most painful places were his nostril, his upper lip and the shaft of
his penis (which is great news for ladies).