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Making people laugh, and then think

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."

Click through the gallery for the winners, or visit YouTube to watch a video of the ceremony. You can also check out our gallery of last year's winners here.

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Photo by: Improbable Research

Chemistry Prize: Unboiling an egg

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.

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Photo by: © the food passionates/Corbis

Physics Prize: Time to pee

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.

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Photo by: © Angelo Merendino/Corbis

Literature Prize: Huh?

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.

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Photo by: © Jacquie Boyd/Ikon Images/Corbis

Management Prize: Disastrous CEOs

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."

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Photo by: © Michael Kittell/Corbis

Economics Prize: Bribe the bribe away

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 bribes.

The incentive program collapsed under the weight of criticism from the public after just a few days.

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Photo by: © Richard Cummins/Corbis

Medicine Prize: Kissing the allergy better

Sure, kissing is great, but what does it actually do for you? According to two different teams of researchers, jointly awarded the Ig Nobel Medicine Prize, actually a fair bit.

Hajime Kimata, who runs the Department of Allergy at Satou Hospital in Osaka, Japan, found that kissing can reduce allergic response. More specifically, he studied people who were allergic to cedar pollen and dust mites, and found that 30 minutes of kissing reduced the skin weal response to allergens, and the production of allergen-specific immunoglobulin-E. Taking the research further, he also found that sexual intercourse can reduce the skin weal response to allergens.

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.

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Photo by: © SuperStock/SuperStock/Corbis

Mathematics Prize: Prolific fatherhood

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 600 sons.

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.

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Photo by: Public domain

Biology Prize: Chicken + toilet plunger = dinosaur

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."

You can watch a video of the tail in action here.

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Photo by: Video screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET

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.

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Photo by: © Alan Schein Photography/Corbis

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).

If you think Smith is insane, think again: medicine has a long and wonderful history of self-experimentation. You don't even want to know about Stubbins Ffirth.

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Photo by: © Ralph Clevenger/Corbis

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