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18 September 2015

The 2015 Ig Nobel prizewinners: bees in your pants, the word “huh“, and unboiling an egg

Honouring this year's strangest scientific discoveries.

By Emad Ahmed

The Ig Nobel Prize ceremony is an annual tradition honouring the world’s most unusual (and sometimes possibly helpful) research from a range of fields. And this year’s scientific achievements are no less weird.

For example, the distinction in chemistry was awarded to Dr Yuan and his 10 fellow co-authors, who invented a technique which allows the partial reversal of the boiling process in an egg. The complete title of their work is “Shear-Stress-Mediated refolding of proteins from aggregates and inclusion bodies.”

The most difficult research (for reasons which will be made obvious) was awarded jointly in the physiology or entomology field to Justin Schmidt and his colleagues, for creating the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, and fellow researcher Michael Smith. This model measures the relative pain felt by the stinging of various insects on different parts of the body. Schmidt endured 25 separate stings by a honey bee across his whole body to learn the least painful locations (the head, upper arm) to the most painful locations (the nostril, penis shaft).

The physics prize was awarded to Patricia Yang’s group from Georgia Tech, whose study concluded that the length of urination does not change with body size between almost all mammals. They also found that it can take approximately between eight and 34 seconds for a mammal to empty its bladder. But of course, this depends on fluid intake and internal excess fluid levels.

Another unusual study honoured was that from Mark Dingemanse and his colleagues, based in the psycholinguistics institute at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, who discovered the interrogative word “huh” (and its international verbal equivalents) is found universally in many languages, and is arguably a proper word. It may be useful knowing the next time you visit an exotic country for your holiday, you could say one word that the locals will be able to understand.

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A much more serious study was highlighted for the management prize, which investigated young survivors of natural disasters, finding they are more likely to be open to risk-taking in future business dealings, if they weren’t exposed to any danger during such events. However, chief executives who witness greater tragedy during their childhood are more likely to remain conservative in their work and decision-making.

In case the researchers’ credibility is doubted at this annual ceremony, keep in mind that the studies rewarded are almost always from well-respected technical organisations, or peer-reviewed journals, such as PLoS ONE and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The ceremony is always a light-hearted affair, and this year included a chance for the audience to make paper airplanes, and also the “24/7” lectures – talks that challenge researchers to detail their latest work in 24 seconds, and again in a seven-word summary. The awards are usually presented by past Nobel Prize winners.

Previous honours have been awarded to studies that looked at the dangers of owning a pet cat, the ability of converting a bra into a face safety mask, and the amount of force required to drag sheep over different surfaces. Other strange prize-winning discoveries include the side effects of sword swallowing, the explanation of why woodpeckers don’t get headaches, and the optimal method to dunk biscuits.

The full list of honourees is available on the Ig Nobel website.

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