Weird Science: The Ig Nobel prizes

By Calvin Lowe -

Category: Science

Science attempts to answer big questions: what is the origin of mass? How do you cure disease? How is babby formed?

Achievements in the advancement of science are celebrated every year at the Nobel prize ceremony in Norway. While The Nobel Prize is important, they represent only a snapshot of all the achievements of modern science. Focusing only on the Nobel could leave you with a skewed understanding of the whole.

You might think that there are only a handful of hero-scientists achieving great things, that they begin their research with the Nobel Prize fixed in their minds. Perhaps that science has a natural end point. But this is bullshit. Science is curiosity for curiosity’s sake.

If you discover something interesting you follow the trail. If it happens to be useful it’s a bonus. Science does not move in a straight line. Results and advancement come from the most unexpected places. A great example of a world changing technology that came from research is Wi-Fi.

The technology underpinning Wi-Fi was pioneered in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s from mathematical techniques used in radio-astronomy. These pioneers needed a way to understand and collect complex radio signals that contained component waves from different sources, different strengths and arriving at the collection point at different time points. They developed mathematical techniques known as Fast Fourier transforms. This same technique can be used to detect the radio signal bounced around your home or office from your router.

A patent used by one of the key wireless standards used in Wi-Fi is held by CSIRO. They have received great media attention in recent years for their large patent settlement wins in US courts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. However the claim that CSIRO invented Wi-Fi is controversial at best[1]. Of course it doesn’t matter who invented it. The pioneering astronomers are the ones who should be celebrated.

This side-tracked science raises fundamental questions. Is it possible to know beforehand what you will discover? How do you determine whether or not your research is important? Who decides what qualifies as important research? The answers to these questions are unknown. We should celebrate a broader range of scientific research. Especially those that are unorthodox, or seem strange and pointless at first glance.

The Ig Nobel Prizes do just this. Every year they celebrate achievements in science that make you laugh… and then think. The Igs intend to promote curiosity and to get people interested in science. They show that science doesn’t have to be high minded and high brow. It can also be bizarre and funny. Since starting in 1991 the Igs have recognised hundreds of weird advancements in science. Without the Igs these achievements may have been confined to obscurity.

The 2015 Ig Nobel Winners*

Chemistry

Awarded to two groups, for inventing a chemical recipe to unboil an egg[2]. Callum Ormonde and Colin Raston from Australia. Tom Yuan, Stephan Kudlacek, Sameeran Kunche, Joshua N. Smith, William A. Brown, Kaitlin Pugliese, Tivoli Olsen, Mariam Iftikhar and Gregory Weiss from USA.

Ormonde et. al. discovered how to change the properties of a cooked hen’s egg, changing breakfast forever.

Economics

Awarded to the Bangkok Metropolitan Police. They offered to pay policemen extra cash if the policemen refused to take bribes. An innovative solution that avoids the usual ineffective moralising.

Medicine

For experiments investigating the biomedical benefits of intense kissing (and other intimate, interpersonal activities). Awarded to two groups. Hajime Kimata[3][4][5] from Japan. Jaroslava Durdiaková from Slovakia, Peter Celec, Natália Kamodyová, Tatiana Sedláčková, Gabriela Repiská, Barbara Sviežená, and Gabriel Minárik from Slovakia[6].

They discovered that kissing and/or sexual intercourse reduced the allergic response.

Biology

Awarded to Bruno Grossi, Omar Larach, Mauricio Canals, Rodrigo A. Vásquez , José Iriarte-Díaz from Chile.

3 chickens: a control, a chicken with a weight and a chicken with a weighted tail.

A real bird-brained experiment.

They attached a weighted stick to the read end of a chicken. They observed that the chicken walked in the same way as dinosaurs once did[7]. Thus adding more evidence to the claim that birds evolved from dinosaurs.

Physiology and Entomology aka The Bravery Award

Drawing of the human form with Xs and labels at the sting locations.

This happened near the end of the lab Christmas party.

Awarded to two individuals. Justin Schmidt and Michael L. Smith from the USA. Schmidt created the Schmidt Sting Pain Index (SSPI)[8]. The SSPI rates the relative pain people feel when stung by various insects. Smith arranged for honey bees to sting him on 25 different locations on his body[9]. He learnt which locations are the least painful: the skull, middle toe tip, and upper arm. He also discovered which are the most painful: the nostril, upper lip and penis shaft. Yep, he let a bee sting him on the penis, give the man a medal.
I propose that Michael L. Smith be awarded the Scientific bravery award.

*Some of this years winners were left out for brevity’s sake.

My favourite Ig Nobel of this year was for the unboiling of the egg.

The unboiled egg

What happens when you boil an egg?

A hen’s egg solidifies and hardens when boiled. The egg white goes from a runny liquid to a white dense solid. The yolk goes from a yellow runny liquid to a yellow dense solid. On the molecular level the application of heat causes disruption of hydrogen bonds. This process is called protein denaturation.

These hydrogen bonds are responsible for a protein’s shape. They form between the amino acid sub-units of the protein. The application of heat breaks these bonds, destroying the 3D structure of the protein. It frees these atoms to then make linkages with other molecules which causes coagulation. Coagulation causes solidification and resultant colour and phase change of your eggs.

Although the Ig Nobel prize was given for the unboiling of the egg, this was simply the proof of concept used for the new technique developed by this year’s winners. What the paper describes is the application of a “vortex fluid device (VFD)” (think of water going down a drain) to apply a shear stress (think of turning a page of a book) to a solution containing these misfolded proteins (boiled hen’s egg proteins) in order to facilitate the refolding of the protein to its’ native form. The aim of this research is to apply the method to the “unboiling” of industrially produced proteins. The advantage of this technique over previously used methods is that it is hundreds of times faster, can be used at room temperature and can be applied to small batches.

A new way of refolding proteins is significant. Protein production systems are used in the production of biopharmaceuticals, such as human insulin, to manufacture enzymes. The VFD has also been used to increase the production yield of lidocaine[10].

See, that was unexpected – the unboiling of an egg has greater applications and more uses than appear at face value. This research is a great example of seemingly bizarre research having wider applications.

From Ig Nobel to Nobel

Winners of the Ig Nobel prize have gone onto win the Nobel prize. Andre Geim and Michael Berry wrote a paper[11] in which they described how they levitated a frog using magnets. The point of this research was to disprove a theorem relating to whether you can achieve an equilibrium position for a floating object in a magnetic field. They succeeded in demonstrating that the theorem does not hold and it is in fact possible to levitate live biological objects provided the applied magnetic field is strong enough. In addition to the famous frog, they also managed to levitate bubbles of water and a grasshopper.


A little frog levitates inside a 16 Tesla magnetic field.


A grasshopper levitates inside a magnetic field.

Andre Geim went on to win the Nobel Prize, for work in a different field. Along with Konstantin Novoselov, Geim was awarded the prize “for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene”.

This reaffirms that it is impossible to know ahead of time which direction research may take us. A researcher working on something that seems silly at first glance goes on to win a prestigious award.

There is a lot more to these Ig Nobels than meets the eye. In future articles we’re going to look at the science behind the 5 second rule, the physics of slipping on a banana peel, the chemistry behind why onions make people cry, why swearing relives pain and the role of rectal massages in terminating bouts of the hiccups

Dr. Fesmire, of digital-rectal-massage-to-cure-hiccups fame

And the Ig Nobels has even given us way to cure hiccups. Francis M. Fesmire of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine who won the Ig Nobel prize for medicine in 2006 for his paper entitled “Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage”.

References

  1. CSIRO’S PERSPECTIVE ON WIRELESS PATENT LEGAL STRUGGLE | Wikileaks
    https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/07CANBERRA1721_a.html
  2. Shear-Stress-Mediated Refolding of Proteins from Aggregates and Inclusion Bodies | ChemBioChem
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cbic.201402427/full (access required)
  3. Kissing reduces allergic skin wheal responses and plasma neurotrophin levels | Physiology & Behavior
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0031938403002956 (access required)
  4. Kissing selectively decreases allergen-specific IgE production in atopic patients | Journal of Psychosomatic Research
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022399905004253 (acess required>
  5. Reduction of allergic skin weal responses by sexual intercourse in allergic patients | Sexual and Relationship Therapy
    http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14681990410001691361 (access required)
  6. Prevalence and persistence of male DNA identified in mixed saliva samples after intense kissing | Forensic Science International: Genetics
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1872497312001834 (access required)
  7. Walking Like Dinosaurs: Chickens with Artificial Tails Provide Clues about Non-Avian Theropod Locomotion | PLOS One
    http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0088458 (open access)
  8. Hemolytic activities of stinging insect venoms | Archives of Insect Biochemistry and Physiology
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/arch.940010205/abstract (access required)
  9. Honey bee sting pain index by body location | PeerJ
    https://peerj.com/articles/338/ (open access)
  10. Rapid Vortex Fluidics: Continuous Flow Synthesis of Amides and Local Anesthetic Lidocaine. | PubMed
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26095879 (access required)
  11. Of flying frogs and levitron | European Journal of Physics
    http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/0143-0807/18/4/012 (access required)

Featured image “Magneto and the levitating frog” by Evan Seedhouse. Article images courtesy of journal authors. Videos courtesy of High Field Magnet Laboratory, Radboud University.

As always any suggestions, comments or corrections are welcome. Just post in the comments. For more information clink the links or check the references above or just google it like I do.

The Best of luck and Long News Future and Opinion,

Calvin