Ig Nobel Prizes: From saying 'huh' to unboiling an egg – the world's oddest scientific discoveries

All human life and much beyond is covered by this year’s alternative awards

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The Independent Online

The delicate task of measuring the standard speed for emptying one’s bladder and the near-impossible procedure for partially unboiling a boiled egg are just two of the research discoveries to be honoured in this year’s Ig Nobel Prizes.

The awards, revealed at Harvard University, Massachusetts, are an antidote to the more serious Nobel Prizes announced next month and are designed to honour research that initially makes you laugh and them makes you think.

The Ig Nobels have covered such esoteric subjects as how to calculate the statistical probability of falling toast landing buttered-side down, to the frictional coefficient of a shoe slipping on a banana skin.

Koji Tsukada demonstrates the "Speech Jammer" after winning the 2012 Ig Nobel Acoustics Prize for creating the machine that disrupts a person's speech by making them hear their own words at a delay (Reuters)

Going soft

This year’s Ig Nobel laureates included researchers at the University of California, Irvine, including Stephan Kudlacek, who conducted a seminal study into the chemistry of how to unfold the white proteins that form as a result of boiling a hen’s egg.

The research paper, “Shear-Stress-Mediated Refolding of Proteins from Aggregates and Inclusion Bodies”, said the “refolding technique could significantly shorten times, lower costs and reduce waste streams associated with protein expression for a wide range of industrial and research applications”. It won the chemistry prize.

Going quick

The physics prize was handed to scientists at Georgia Tech University in the US, who tested the principal that nearly all mammals, from chihuahuas to elephants, empty their bladder in about 21 seconds. The researchers said the study “may help to diagnose urinary problems in animals as well as inspire the design of scalable hydrodynamic systems based on those in nature”.


Walking with chickens

The biology prize went to a project that involved sticking artificial tails to chickens to study the locomotion of living descendents of dinosaurs. The paper, “Walking Like Dinosaurs: Chickens with Artificial Tails”, provides clues about non-avian theropod location and was published in the on-line journal Plos One.

Chickens raised with artificial tails showed that as some feathered dinosaurs evolved into modern birds, they shifted from an upright to a more crouched posture, with a corresponding shift from “hip-driven to knee-driven limb movements”, said the researchers from the University of Chile.

Universal language

The literature prize went to Mark Dingemanse and team at the Max Planck Institute, in the Netherlands, who asked whether the word “Huh?” was used universally to ask a question. The answer appears to be “yes” because the similarities “in form and function of this interjection across languages are much greater than expected by chance”. They concluded that “huh?” seems to be a rare example of a word that means the same to everyone across the world.

Marc Abrahams, Master of Ceremonies and editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, holds one of this year's prizes at the 24th Ig Nobel Prizes awards ceremony last year (Reuters)

Taking one for the team

Michael Smith of Cornell University in New York shares the Ig Nobel in medicine for his work on assessing the pain of honey bee stings, which varies according to body location.

Dr Smith donated his own bodyto the cause, carefully applying honey bees to 25 locations and assessing the pain of each sting  based on a comparison to his “internal standard” – a sting to his forearm. In a finding that will go down in the annals of scientific discovery, he concluded in his study published in the online journal PeerJ: “The three least painful positions were the skull, middle toe and upper arm… the three most painful locations were the nostril, upper lip and penis shaft.”

Pucker up

Kissing studies shared the medicine prize, with Slovakian scientists interested in the amount of DNA left behind after a bout of intense snogging – which they said was useful for forensic science. While Japanese researchers investigated if allergic reactions are affected by kissing with the help of 30 volunteers who were asked to kiss for 30 minutes. They found that kissing appeared to reduce  response to a skin-allergy test and so may have implications in the study of the neuroimmunology of allergic patients. So, kissing may be good for you.